Bourbon and Sugar and Mint Leaves, oh my! (Get your julep on.)

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Like most Kentucky girls, I have opinions about bourbon. Strong, numerous opinions.

Out of the many, however, one stands out as being most important. There is a difference between drinking bourbon and sipping bourbon. Your sipping bourbons live on the tippy-top shelf of the bar/cabinet/world. You have two options when it comes to sippin’ bourbon – neat or on the rocks. Don’t argue with me.

Drinking bourbon, on the other hand, gives you some more flexibility. This is not to say that drinking bourbon can’t be good quality (it can), but that, rather, you won’t be defiling a rather delicious gift from God if you choose to make a cocktail with it. There is, of course, also something we call “swill,” but we won’t even acknowledge that here.

Allow me to elaborate. Old Forrester or Maker’s Mark are good, solid, delicious drinking bourbons. A 20 year old Pappy Van Winkle is a good, solid, delicious sipping bourbon. This is an important distinction this time of year. Why?

Because you don’t make a julep with 20 year old Pappy. You just don’t.

If you ever see someone do that or order a (shudder) mixed drink of any kind with a 20 year old Pappy or 17 year old Eagle Rare, I want you to do me a favor and slap them. Hard. And maybe scream “Snap out of it!”

And while you’re at it, channel Olympia Dukakis:

Because, letsbehonest, if you’re pouring sugar water into a fine bourbon like that, your life is, most certainly, going down the toilet.

Where it will join your taste.

I kid. I kid.

About the last part. Not the slapping or the sacrilege bit. So help me, don’t try it.

This post isn’t about my rage, however. This post is in celebration of Kentucky Christmas, i.e. the Kentucky Derby. It is, therefore, about Mint Juleps.

Because I love you, I did a bit of day-drinking yesterday to test these recipes for you. Sipping recipe after recipe after recipe until I got them just right. If that doesn’t show how much I care, well, I don’t know what will. I started the tests as a fresh-faced, optimistic thing and, in the end, looked like this:

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Oh, well. C’est la vie, right?

Before we touch the hooch, however, we need to do some prep. Namely, we need to make our mint simple syrup.

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You’ll need to do this the night before your soiree or, at the very least, the night before you plan to do the julep drinking. Do NOT – I repeat, DO NOT – buy the pre-made julep mixes. They’re okay, I guess, but so not the same. If making your own simple syrup was difficult, I wouldn’t require it of you. But it’s not, so I am. Do it. You’ll thank me.

Just take equal parts water and sugar and put them in a saucepan. I made a lot, so 2 cups of each.

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Put the pot on the stove and heat until the sugar is melted/dissolved and the liquid looks clear. We’re not making caramel or candy here, so you don’t need to cook the sugar. Once it’s completely dissolved, pull it off the stove and let it cool. This is simple syrup.

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You can use this to sweeten literally everything. For those of you worried about the glycemic index in any capacity, I also made a simple syrup with coconut sugar. While it’s completely dark in color and has an almost molasses-y sort of flavor, it was delicious and works well too. We’re not done yet, though.

Once the syrup is cool, transfer it to an airtight container and add a bunch of fresh mint leaves. Make sure you take the stems off.

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Put the lid on and let it sit in the fridge overnight. This will infuse the syrup with amazing minty flavor. I usually let it stay in for closer to 24 hours. After all, this part isn’t exactly labor intensive. After that, just strain the mint leaves out and store the syrup in an airtight container until you’re ready to make juleps.

Fun fact: This also makes amazing mint lemonade. Squeeze a lemon into a glass, add some mint simple syrup, add ice, and fill the glass to the top with water. Stir and enjoy. 

Are you ready to make some juleps? I’ve got options for you. Options are always good. Options are especially good when you’re having a party. Which you should be. Not everyone likes a straight-up julep. Don’t worry – I’ve got you covered. I’ll hold your hand and we’ll get through this together. Are you ready?

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Traditionally, mint juleps are served in julep cups. These are silver and super spendy. I am not in possession of any julep cups. Besides, it’s hard to photograph through them – solid, metal surface and all. So we’re serving in a variety of hodge-podge glassware from my kitchen. I’m a purist in all ways other than servingware, I assure you. And if anyone wants to mail me some julep cups, let me know. I’m not above receiving gifts.

Some people use crushed ice. Some people don’t. I’m a big fan of the giant ice cube. Take your glass or cup and fill with your preferred sort of ice. Now, we can have fun. The mix is:

3 oz. good, Kentucky bourbon

1 oz mint simple syrup

sprig of mint

It really is as simple as that. It’s boozy, I’m warning you, but it’s Derby. Derby requires boozy. If you like it sweeter, add more syrup. If you like it less, well, add less. I’m not here to tell you how to drink.

Oh. Right.

This is the base of the rest of the fun we’ll be having today. If you want all the booze, but are looking for something a little lighter, you’ll love this next one. I call it a Mint Julep Spritzer.

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Fill a taller glass with ice. Add your 3 ounces of bourbon, 1 ounce of syrup, and mint leaves. Then, fill it to the top with soda water. I’d say put a straw in it, but that could get dangerous. This is one smooth beverage, my friends, and it drinks quickly.

For something a little more exotic for your Derby party, try my Blackberry Mint Julep.

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Take five or six washed blackberries and muddle them in the bottom of a glass. In laymen’s terms, jut squish them around. Put your ice cubes on top and then pour your standard julep over top. As a refresher, that’s:

3 oz. good, Kentucky bourbon

1 oz mint simple syrup

sprig of mint

5-7 blackberries

If blackberries aren’t your thing, you could try my Lemon Mint Julep.

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Put your ice in a glass. Squeeze half a lemon into it. Then proceed as usual.

3 oz. good, Kentucky bourbon

1 oz mint simple syrup

sprig of mint

In case you haven’t caught it by now, juleps are a crazy easy drink to make and modify.

If you’re not into the bourbon part of the julep, definitely follow my earlier suggestion and make a mint lemonade. It’s sweet, refreshing, and sure to please even your pickiest teetotaling guests. 🙂

We’re not done, folks. Before Derby Day, we have The Kentucky Oaks. Oaks is basically the same shindig, but with a lot more pink. At the track (and licensed vendors), you can purchase a drink called The Lily. It’s a Grey Goose thing. Depending on which stand at the track serves you, they range from being really sweet to really, really, ridiculously sweet.

I’ve come up with my own variation. It’s based on the same basic principles, but with a twist. Since I can’t call it The Lily (and it’s not really a Lily anyway), I call it The Lola.

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2 oz your favorite vodka

2 oz good quality or homemade sweet and sour mix

3 oz cranberry juice

splash of Triple Sec

orange twist

blackberries

Pour all liquid ingredients and orange peel into a shaker with ice. Shake well. Strain into a glass. At the Oaks, these are served in commemorative glasses, but you could use a stemless wine glass or a martini glass just as easily. Drop the orange twist from the shaker into the drink along with a blackberry or two.

You should know that the sweetness of this drink depends largely on the juice you use. If you use 100% cranberry, this drink will be more tart. To sweeten it, add a little powdered sugar to the shaker. Or, you could use a cranberry juice cocktail, which would make it much sweeter on its own. The 100% cranberry juice is what gives it that really gorgeous color, however, and I like it. Just add the powdered sugar or some simple syrup or, if you’re “watching it,” stevia.

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I hope you’ll try one (or all) of these. I know that the Kentucky Derby is hardly a big deal at all to anyone but horse folks and Kentuckians, but I hope that, at the very least, you’ll try one of these drinks on for size. They’re incredibly refreshing and not just suitable for the first Saturday in May. In fact, I make Lolas for my mom all year long.

Does anyone have a favorite Derby tradition? I’d love to hear it!

‘Til next time, get your julep on, kittens. xoxo

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