Let’s play a word association game. When we say Mint Julep, what comes to mind? Kentucky Derby? Southern hospitality? We’re willing to bet tradition falls in there somewhere close to the top of the list. And in the South, you don’t mess with tradition. But for mint juleps, we’ll make an exception.
We’ve got two of Louisville, Kentucky’s most popular renditions of that famous Derby drink, the Mint Julep. The first represents the time-tested, tried-and-true Old Kentucky Home kind of julep. The second represents a new Louisville, one where the Mint Julep isn’t really a Mint Julep at all, at least not in the strictest sense of the term.
Let’s start at the beginning. The Brown Hotel, built in 1923 by wealthy businessman and philanthropist James Graham Brown, began as a society hub for the upper crust and remains a steadfast representative of Southern charm, featuring the AAA Four-Diamond rated restaurant, The English Grill. Distinguished on the Urban Bourbon Trail as home of the best julep, The Brown is the place to go for a traditional version of this well-loved concoction. Turns out, the secret’s in the syrup.
The Brown Hotel’s Classic Mint Julep: A How-To
Trick of the trade: A good mint simple syrup.
Fresh mint leaves are steeped into a basic hot simple syrup (sugar and water) for the sweet mint infused syrup. Here’s a tip, after you finish with the cooking process, allow the leaves to soak until syrup comes to room temperature. This will ensure a strong flavor.
In a classic julep, crushed ice is always a must, but the type of bourbon is left up to the patron’s choice. For a spicier julep, they suggest Woodford Reserve. For a smoother julep, they might suggest Maker’s Mark.
To assemble, place mint in bottom of glass, add crushed ice, pour 1.75oz of bourbon and 1.75 oz of mint simple syrup. Finish with club soda.
Note on presentation: At The Brown, sprigs of fresh mint are dusted with powdered sugar before garnishing a julep.
If you’re interested in turning tradition on its head (without shunning it completely), the bar at Proof on Main comes highly recommended. Proof is located in the 21C Museum Hotel, which was founded relatively recently in 2006 by philanthropists and contemporary art collectors Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson. Both the hotel and bar represent the newer face of Louisville. Since its opening, Proof on Main has received accolades from the likes of The James Beard Foundation, Esquire Magazine, and Southern Living’s Best of the South. We’ve got Proof’s contempo take on the julep, a cocktail developed and dubbed “For the Birds” by bartender Chris Wilkins.
For the Birds
2 oz Pure Kentucky XO
.25 oz Smith and Cross Rum
.75 oz Simple Syrup
.5 pip Bitterman’s Mole Bitters
Fresh mint sprigs
Muddle mint with ¼ oz of simple syrup. Combine remaining ingredients with ice and stir. Strain well and pour.
Note on presentation: Garnish with fresh mint sprig. Leave about 2.5-3 inches of stem with a tuft of leaves on top.
Since we’re on the topic of one of the best bourbon infused cocktails out there, it’d be helpful to know exactly what makes a bourbon a bourbon. Here are the facts:
As you celebrate Derby Day this year, enjoy your juleps old-fashioned or new-fashioned, in a silver cup or a glass tumbler.
For Derby menu suggestions, see the recipe below for The Brown Hotel’s Legendary Hot Brown, plus two new not-so-traditional takes on the original.
—By Alissa Harb