“They say that you may always know the grave of a Virginian as, from the quantity of julep he has drunk, mint invariably springs up where he has been buried.”
—Frederick Marryat, 1839
The Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on May 1 is perhaps the most famous horse race in modern times. This year marks the 130th running of the race but it is also famous for its mascot—the mint julep. During the build up to Saturday’s race, 80,000 mint juleps will be served, requiring 150 bushels of mint and 60 tons of crushed ice. The julep is perhaps the oldest American cocktail known, having originated in Virginia or Maryland in the late 1700s; only then, it was made with rum, whiskey or whatever alcohol was available. The julep then migrated west and found a home in Kentucky where legend has it mint was planted around the clubhouse to have available for the first race.
While you can buy pre-made julep mixes, that is cheating and dishonorable. This is a complicated drink to make properly; many who have experienced poorly concocted juleps wonder what the fuss is all about.
The making of a mint julep is truly ceremonial and requires specialized equipment. While any Yankee can make one using a tumbler, glass, or shaker, to properly make one you need a silver cup. In this silver cup are placed two cubes of sugar, several sprigs of mint and a splash of fresh water or, better yet, bourbon. It is important to crush and bruise the mint inside the cup with a wooden muddler. The sugar cubes assist in this endeavor and whence the sugar and mint are comfortably loose and syrupy, you add crushed ice and the most important ingredient—bourbon. It is critical that the ice is crushed and not cubed. You can make crushed ice by putting cubed ice in a plastic bag, covering it with a kitchen towel and giving it a few good whacks with a frying pan.
According to General Simon Bolivar Buckner’s instructions for making the perfect mint julep, the final touch before adding the mint sprig garnish is thus:
“Then comes the important and delicate operation of frosting. By proper manipulation of the spoon the ingredients are circulated and blended until nature, wishing to take a further hand and add another of its beautiful phenomena, encrusts the whole in a glistening coat of white frost. Thus harmoniously blended by the deft touches of a skilled hand, you have a beverage eminently appropriate for honorable men and beautiful women.”