The julep is a great and many splendored thing—frosty, fragrant and eminently adaptable.
So why do we only drink one version once a year?
No offense to mint or the proud traditions of the Kentucky Derby, but I gotta say the julep has more to offer. A century ago, when juleps were in vogue, there was a sense of limitless possibilities—the Prescription Julep made with cognac and rye; juleps made of whiskey, cognac and gin; pineapple juleps and others topped with Champagne.
The basic building blocks of this drink are always on hand in any bar or reasonably well-equipped home kitchen: crushed ice, a strong spirit, something sweet and a fresh bunch of herbs to pack on top.
So let's bring back the julep variety and drink this fine old American classic all year.
Most bartenders use Scotsman Pebble ice machines these days, but old-fashioned hand-crushed ice is the classic. So if you're making this at home, get out the mallet, wrap some ice in a clean bar towel and start smashing.
The base spirit doesn't have to be bourbon—but it does have to be high-proof. The lower freezing point of high-strength alcohol means the mug will frost up nicely and the drink won't get too watered down. And any glass will work, but a classic nickel-plated shiny julep mug makes a big difference. Got a stainless steel straw? Of course you do. Start swizzling.
So let's talk about variations. I'm a big believer in pairing the sweetener to the base of a spirit: All booze is made from fermentable sugar after all. So in the Highland Cup, my tequila-based julep (see the recipe), I've paired agave syrup with agave-based tequila.
The second logic I've employed here is the notion that "if it grows with it, it goes with it." Cilantro is a typical herb used in Mexico, and tequila is Mexican. Same idea with A River Runs Through It (see the recipe), a drink inspired by a trip to Tokyo and a visit to where Hakushu single-malt whisky is made. The name is a nod to the mountain streams from which the whisky is crafted. This version is not only given a subtle twist from switching out bourbon for Hakushu, but it also replaces the mint with shiso.
Also think about how the herb and sweetener will accentuate flavors found in the spirit you're mixing with. Rum has citrus qualities, hence the use of lemongrass to help bring them to the forefront in Tradewinds, my rum julep (see the recipe).
These are my julep riffs, but there's a world of herby-spirit mashups out there. What's in your julep?
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