Yes, our city makes declarations from time to time because, well, we can and we have a reason to. The Louisville Convention & Visitors Bureau named April the official Mint Julep Month back in 2013, and each year the city’s bars, restaurants and local shops step up to offer all kinds of minty fresh specials.
Before we get to those, let’s go over the basics of the Derbytime cocktail. First of all, if you’ve only had one at Churchill Downs and decided it’s not for you, please try it again at a reputable venue (like any listed below). The track’s mint juleps are concocted from a pre-made mix, and even though they’re now using Old Forester (a huge step up from the previous Early Times), it’s still not the best that can be had in the city.
A standard mint julep is made with bourbon, sugar, ice and mint — which sounds pretty simple, but using the right bourbon, sugar, ice and mint is imperative. Let’s start with bourbon. I’d suggest using a high-proof bourbon (90-110) so it’ll stand up to the mountain of ice you’re going to use. I’d also stay away from sweeter bourbons like Maker’s Mark (although Maker’s 46 would do quite well), because you’re already adding sugar to the drink and you want to avoid canker sores.
Next is the sugar, sugar. Some bartenders prefer muddling the mint with a sugar cube, but I like a mint-infused simple syrup. For years I scooped white sugar into my homemade juleps and was never satisfied. I thought making simple syrup sounded complicated and way too nerdy. And then I realized that if I can boil water for my nerdy French-press coffee maker, then I can make a damn simple syrup. The year I made my first batch, I brought it to a Derby party and became more famous than Jennifer Lawrence … when she graduated from Ballard.
To make simple syrup, you heat up one cup of water on the stove and stir in one cup of sugar until it dissolves. It’s a 1-to-1 ratio, which even I can understand, even though I pull out a tip calculator every time I get my tab.
Next up, there’s the ice. And if you don’t think ice is important, then I guess your relatives weren’t aboard the Titanic. The mint julep is all about the crushed ice. No cubes allowed. If you can get ahold of some of that delectable pelletized ice that falls from the heavens of White Castle, then you’ve struck gold. If not, take a bag of cubes or store-bought ice, wrap it in a towel, and pummel it with either a hammer or meat mallet (real term — I looked it up). A finished product should look like you ran it through a Snoopy Sno-Cone Machine.
If you have one of those fancy silver or copper cups, dust it off and prepare it for battle. Take the mint you stole from your neighbor’s garden or bought at Kroger and peel some leaves into the empty cup. Next, add half an ounce of the simple syrup and let it mingle with the leaves. If you have a muddler, go ahead and use it. If you don’t, grab that mini Louisville Slugger bat you have and use that — but maybe wash it off first.
The recipe varies, but let’s go ahead and add 3 ounces of bourbon — I’ll pick Four Roses Small Batch for mine, but feel free to choose your favorite. Add your crushed ice and try to form a dome on top. Remember: More than a handful is a waste here, too. Finally, garnish the julep with more mint sprigs, shove a sipping straw or two down to the bottom and enjoy.
Now that you’re armed with bona fide knowledge, you’ll be able to judge a julep by its cover when you see one. Below is the list I promised of participating bars, restaurants and retail stores with Mint Julep Month specials. There are some great ones on this list, and they’ll probably tweak the recipe to make it original, so go in with an open mind and a high-functioning liver. Perhaps start with a traditional one, which Bourbons Bistro is offering for a steal at $5 all month long.
• Asiatique — Mint julep featuring the restaurant’s housemade ginger simple syrup.
• The Bakery at Sullivan University — Mint Julep Cupcake (bourbon chocolate cake with mint icing) for $2. Also, Mint Julep Cream Pie (chocolate bourbon pastry cream with chocolate curls, fresh mint and mint whipped cream. Whole pie ($16.50); tartlet ($2.50); and mini tart ($1.25).
• Bar at BLU — A Chocolate Julep Martini. Also, Bourbon Chocolate Mousse with Crème de Menthe Chantilly Cream and topped with a cherry.
• Bourbon Raw — Mint julep made with Woodford Reserve and strawberry mint simple syrup. Served over crushed ice and garnished with a strawberry slice and mint sprig.
• Bourbons Bistro — Traditional mint julep for $5.
• Bristol Bar & Grille (downtown) — Three mint juleps on special, including: Garden Julep (muddled fresh herbs of rosemary, mint and basil with Early Times 354 and Drambuie. Served on the rocks. $8); Royal Julep (Evan Williams Bottled in Bond and Benedictine with muddled fresh mint and simple syrup. Served over crushed ice. $9); Ginger Julep Martini (Basil Hayden with a touch of white Crème de Menthe and ginger infused simple syrup chilled and served up. $9.50).
• Derby Café at the Kentucky Derby Museum — Mint julep in an official Kentucky Derby glass. Also, Strawberry Mint Julep Shortcake.
• Doc Crow’s Southern Smokehouse & Raw Bar — Two mint julep drink specials, including: Near Eastern Julep (Old Grand-Dad Bonded, ginger, Becherovka and basil) and Mint Julep Lemonade (Henry McKenna Single Barrel, lemon juice, sugar and mint). Both are $9.
• Down One Bourbon Bar & Restaurant — “Made to Run, Born to Fly” Mint Julep (Michter’s, tea-infused Honey Shrub and mint leaves). $10.
• Haymarket Whiskey Bar — Cucumber Basil Mint Julep (Knob Creek Single Barrel 120 Proof, housemade cucumber syrup and muddled mint and basil. Served over crushed ice)
• Jockey Silks Bourbon Bar — Derby Pie slices for $5.
• North End Café — Old Forester Peach Julep Pancakes (Old Forester-soaked peaches over Corn Mill pancakes with bourbon mint syrup and homemade whipped cream). Also, I.W. Harper Blood Julep (blood orange syrup, brown sugar mint simple syrup with I.W. Harper bourbon and mint garnish.)
• Patrick O’Shea’s — Mint Julep Margarita (This take on the classic features Evan Williams Black Label Bourbon, Jose Cuervo Tequila, fresh squeezed lime juice and a housemade mint simple syrup.)
• Proof on Main — “Hot to Trot” Julep by Damien Cooke, who is the winner of the 2016 Four Roses Mint Julep Contest. (Features Four Roses Yellow Label, Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao, Demerara cayenne syrup, Fernet-Branca and mint leaves.)
• Seviche — Mint Julep Parfait (Made with bourbon cake, grasshopper pie mousse and mint crema.) Also, Kentucky Kombucha Mint Julep (Made with Maker’s Mark, mint syrup and jasmine kombucha.)
• Sidebar at Whiskey Row — Strawberry Basil Julep (Buffalo Trace, strawberry puree, simple syrup and basil. Garnished with basil and strawberry puree.)
• Varanese — Four Roses Single Barrel Country Fried Apple Mint Julep
• Vint — Vint Julep (This latte features Bourbon Barrel Foods Bourbon Smoked Sugar and Mint Julep Sugar and peppermint syrup.)
Several local retail shops also have products celebrating Mint Julep Month, including Moss Hill Bath & Body Collection (mint julep-scented lotion, soaps, candles and more); Louisville Stoneware (mint julep cups handpainted with the recipe); and Bourbon Barrel Foods (Mint Julep Sugar). The Louisville Visitors Center, 301 S. Fourth St., is selling a mint julep gift set (Louisville Stoneware mint julep cup, Louisville Slugger miniature bat for muddling, Mint Julep Mix and a Muth’s bourbon ball). The store also has mint julep coasters, ornaments, lip balm and soap.