I have raised the Mint Julep to a new level of perfection. Sacrilege though this statement is, it is true. Luckily for all of you, I have done this in time for the Memorial Day and July 4th celebrations.
I think the new drink is most accurately a variant, its own drink, but it is ultimately the same concept as a Mint Julep, like a Gibson to a Martini. Additionally, I believe this drink will tempt away adherents to Manhattans and Old Fashioneds while remaining accessible to newcomers. I shall call it the Perfect Whiskey Cocktail.
The Perfect Whiskey Cocktail is the key item of this post, but first, let’s review some things (and provide some pretty pictures). As all of our readers would know, the Kentucky Derby occurred earlier this month, and we took the opportunity to break the newly finished house in a bit. This was the second time we hosted a Derby party and it’s probably worth writing down some tips now, while I remember them and well before people start planning their own Derbies.
It wouldn’t be a Derby without a lovely lady in a hat!
The central theme of the Kentucky Derby is the consumption of Mint Juleps with a sideshow lottery. True, there is a horse race, and it’s very exciting, but it’s also very short. Also true is that there is wagering with odds and all, but I have yet to meet anyone who actually has any clue about the horses. Anyway, the juleps are clearly most important.
Traditionally, a Mint Julep is simple syrup and bourbon in a 1:4 ratio with a ton of muddled fresh mint and tons of crushed ice. This was the original alcoholic slushy; conceived in a time when frozen drink machines did not exist but the ability to smash ice to bits required only manual labor. I’m sure there are better and more enlightening histories out there – fine. Two components of this simple recipe are actually challenging for a large party:
1) muddling mint in each drink – i don’t have any proper silver julep cups, and I doubt many people have enough of them for a large party. This means we end up using plastic, which does not stand up to muddling. True, one could mass muddle mint in a serving pitcher, but that is still a ginormous pain.
2) crushing enough ice – the julep is properly served by first filling the cup with ice and then adding the liquid. With the 1:4 syrup to booze ratio the ice melts and the drink needs the water to cut it, so each drink is a lot of ice – plan on 10 pounds of ice per 20-25 drinks (allows for loss to melting and all). Manually smashing this would not be fun or make for a particularly relaxed and happy seeming party.
I have found a couple solution sets to these problems.
Solution A: Small Minty Ice Cubes.
This was my original solution a couple of years ago when I had these ice cube trays that made 1 cm square cubes. I boiled mint to make a strong mint tea and then froze it. I started freezing ice daily weeks ahead of the party. I did muddle some fresh mint into the batches I made in pitchers, but the minty-ness was really held up by the ice melting away into the drink. My cubes were strong enough that I used about half mint cubes and half normal in the drinks.
Advantages: solve both problems with one action.
Drawbacks: lots of making ice and the mint cubes look like frozen Mississippi River water.
Solution B: Mint Syrup
You have to make simple syrup no matter what, so why not make it really minty? Simply boil the water with mint, let it steep a bit, skim out the mint, and proceed with the syrup making process.
Advantage: no extra steps, easily controlled minty-ness.
Drawbacks: none. The syrup isn’t clear, but you’re making a bourbon drink, so it doesn’t matter to the end product.
Solution C: Ice Crusher
I was going to write this post as an ode to an ice crusher, but then I made Perfected Julep… Anyway, as this seemingly fabulous person noted on their own previous post about crushing ice, the Waring Pro ice crusher is awesome and really pretty cheap. It is one of my most favorite toys now.
Advantage: it’s an ice CRUSHER! (if you need more of an explanation then you need to loosen up)
Drawback: potentially a bit noisy in a small party space.
So, this time around I went with the solution B/C combo and came out with absolutely delightful mint juleps. We also provided a dill vodka martini (I’ll do a separate post on that topic later) and the Lovely that was introduced back on Valentine’s of 2010. I converted the laundry room with its counters and sink just off the kitchen into the bar staging area so that the kitchen could be a big serve yourself cocktail filling station.
The event bar. The glorious ice crusher is pictured at right.
The Mint Julep station at the end. Non-alcoholic beverages at left.
Martinis were served from the usual bar.
For all the glory of the Mint Julep, why don’t we drink them more? A minor drawback is the need for fresh mint, which isn’t always easy to find. Of course, growing your own, or making the syrup will solve this. Indeed, mint syrup is great to have around for all kinds of drink making fun. I believe the major drawback is the sweetness of the drink. One or two of them on a warm afternoon works out pretty well, but most of us aren’t doing that much drinking before evening. My personal opinion is that among that set of the population willing to drink whiskey, and bourbon in particular, such sweetness is not desirable come evening. If we could all only spend our summer afternoons on the veranda.
However, even in summer there is a need for evening drinks with a darker, heavier flavor than a gin or vodka. I found myself with such a desire when I had barbecue this week. True, one could always have beer, but the bar is fully stocked and calling to me. I had everything I needed for a mint julep leftover from the Derby, but alas, that sounded too sweet. Through a twist of Derby fate a new path opened, like a jockey giving up the inside coming out of the last turn.
I overbought a few ingredients in my Derby preparation zeal. I took store credit to avoid the restocking fee on these bottle and set out for items I needed to keep the bar in balance. As described in my last post, I have been blazing through Fernet Branca and needed more. In my haste, though, I grabbed Fernet Menta, which is still really bitter, but also minty. I was not thrilled about this initially but it is the key to the Perfect Whiskey Cocktail.
Perfect Whiskey Cocktail
1 Bourbon (I tend to use Bulleit for this application – they also make my favorite rye)
1/5 simple syrup and/or mint syrup
1/5 Fernet Menta
The proportions may vary for each drinker, depending on your Fernet tolerance. Stir together with a bit of ice then put it on ice just like a normal julep. The result is a drink that is more balanced than anything I have yet done with bourbon. It is even more drinkable than a Manhattan or Old Fashioned. By varying the balance of ingredients slightly depending on mood, weather and meal, I do believe this is the most versatile whiskey drink I’ve encountered. It is truly the Perfect Whiskey Cocktail.
And a final, random pic – derby pie and other goodness.