The level of party atmosphere is high right now. Today is Cinco de Mayo, which I covered in my previous post, and tomorrow is the 143rd running of Kentucky Derby. Now, I am not some huge horse racing follower, but I do enjoy Derby Day. I don't know what it is. Is it the tradition? The ridiculously outlandish hats? The Bourbon? How about all of the above?
And yes, Bourbon! Let's discuss that for a moment. It is the base material for the cocktail most associated with Derby Day, the Mint Julep. Originally prescribed as a cure for various stomach ailments, the Mint Julep could include a range of spirits including gin (and its malty cousin genever), brandy, and whiskey of any kind. As Bourbon's popularity rose, it made its way into the Mint Julep. While Bourbon can be made anywhere in the United States, the overwhelming majority of production comes from the traditional heartland of Kentucky. So it only made sense that Bourbon crept its way into this cocktail. With a glass full of muddled mint and crushed ice, the Bourbon-based Julep made for a refreshing way to beat the southern heat. A staggering 120,000 of these concoctions are served at Churchill Downs every year.
Now here's the important part...what kind of Bourbon do we choose? We have some things to keep in mind when making a selection.
Avoid the top shelf
Save that Pappy Van Winkle and other high-end/luxury/rare Bourbons for sipping neat. The flavors are so complex they could either take over the drink or the subtle nuances will be missed when the mint gets in the way. Additionally, your crushed ice will melt over time and dilute your Bourbon.
Avoid the bottom shelf
The inexpensive category contains many youthful, lightly flavored Bourbons. While its fire is great for a cocktail, the already faint flavors will dilute very quickly when (once again) your crushed ice melts into your drink.
Find the middle ground
By process of elimination, stick with Bourbons that you see at eye level on your retail shelf. Many of these products have good flavor and are well-balanced. Buffalo Trace, Jefferson's, and Woodford Reserve are all fine choices: Jefferson's on the milder side and Woodford on the richer end of the spectrum. If you are making your way into Bourbon for the first time, Maker's Mark is a gentle, wheated Bourbon. These all fall in the $30-$45 range.
Be sure to proof-read!
Here's another question: are you drinking cocktails all day or are you just going one-and-done? If you are going to be sipping Mint Juleps for the long haul with a multi-course feast, you may want to consider capping your Bourbon's alcohol level at 90 proof (45% abv). If your cocktail is going to be a precursor to other adventures or want to see how the drink changes as the ice melts, try going cask strength or at least in the 100 proof range. There will be a ton of flavor and fire in these Bourbons, but as the drink dilutes you won't lose out too much. Booker's, for example, checks in at over 127 proof and pushes the envelope with alcohol level and price ($60 and up, depending on the deal you find), but it could potentially take your cocktail to new heights.
And now...how to make the Mint Julep! Not a cocktail person? No problem. Get a rocks glass and a healthy pour of your favorite Bourbon and go to town (responsibly, of course)!
4-6 mint leaves
1 tsp superfine sugar
2 tsp water/seltzer
1.5 oz Bourbon
Muddle mint leaves with sugar in a highball glass for 30 seconds, or until fragrant. Add water and stir. Add cracked or crushed ice, followed by Bourbon. Stir. Optional: add a splash of seltzer and garnish with mint leaves.
Additionally, if you happen to have a silver julep cup, you can stir with ice until the cup gets a layer of frost on the outside as shown to the right (but it's not necessary).