The mint julep—one of William Faulkner’s favorite drinks and the first thing we see Clark Gable holding in Gone With the Wind–is as quintessentially Southern as buttermilk biscuits. But it’s also the granddaddy of summer cocktails, keeping drinkers cool in the heat since the late 18th century, when early-rising Virginia farmers took to downing them in the morning.
Today, you can sip a mint julep from California to New Jersey and have it made with everything from mezcal to gin; but the classic bourbon-based version is the one that belongs on your home-bartending short list when temperatures start climbing toward triple digits.
It’s a simple but powerful mixture of whiskey, mint, sugar, and ice that few other cocktails can rival—a drink “fit for an emperor,” in the words of Gilded Age barman Jerry Thomas. “It’s sensory overload,” said Alba Huerta, owner of the bar, Julep, in Houston. “There’s the aroma from the mint, the feeling of the cold julep cup in your hand, the flavor of the whiskey, and the mint and the sugar.”
Making one requires a little more care and skill than putting together a gin and tonic, but the process is part of the great pleasure: crushing the ice, muddling the mint to release its oils and aroma, and stirring it until the tin’s so cold it sticks to your fingers. No wonder this beloved hot-weather ritual has endured for more than 200 years.
2 oz bourbon (overproof or bonded is preferable; the better the whiskey, the better the drink)
½ oz simple syrup
1 bunch of mint
Lots of ice
Add eight mint leaves to the bottom of a julep tin or old-fashioned glass and lightly muddle—tapping or rolling the muddler across the leaves with a little pressure will help avoid shredding the leaves and making them bitter. Add the simple syrup and bourbon and fill the cup most of the way with crushed ice. (Smash cubes with a mallet or meat tenderizer.) Stir the ice until the tin cup begins to develop a frost or the glass grows cold. Add more ice as it dissolves, and taste periodically to measure flavor and temperature. When it’s properly cold, add ice to the top of the cup or above and garnish with a bouquet of mint as large as you like.
Connoisseurs hold a julep only by the rim to preserve the chill, and stick in two straws cut low enough that you get your nose into the bouquet so as to enjoy the mint’s full effect.