By Fred Minnick
Get your silver cups ready. It’s Kentucky Derby time and that means mint juleps. But, was the original mint julep made with Bourbon?
The BNIC (Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac) claims Cognac was the original spirit used to make Mint Juleps. While there are reports that indicate Cognac was often used for mint juleps during the Civil War, the first recorded history of the mint julep indicates whiskey was used, according to the 1803 book by John Davis, Travels of four years and a half in the United States of America.
Predating the Kentucky Derby, the handmade sterling silver cups have been coveted and collected by the influential and powerful since the early 1800’s. The sleek and classic design associated with the silver cup is accredited to early master silver smiths Asa Blanchard of Lexington, Ky and brothers William and Archibald Cooper of Louisville. There are two main styles of julep cups: one with a beaded rim and the other showcasing bands at the top.
In a 1908 Chicago Tribune article about the mint julep, Lexington’s Samuel Judson told the reporter: “Take a silver cup—always a silver cup. Fill it with ice pulverized to the fineness of snow. Bruise one tender little leaf of mint and stick it in the ice. Then dissolve a spoonful of sugar in about three-quarters of a Kentucky drink of good whisky and let the fluid filter through the ice to the bottom of the cup. Shake the cup slowly until a coating of a thick white frost forms on the outside. Trim with mint and hand to an appreciative gentleman.”
Since the early 1950s, Churchill Downs has produced a sterling silver mint julep cup in an official capacity. Today, the mint julep is an iconic symbol for Kentucky and Bourbon. But, there are a lot of bad recipes out there, says Louisville bartender Michael Rubel, co-owner of Louisville’s Silver Dollar. Rubel says some pre-mixes taste like Coalgate toothpaste.
“People muddle the hell out of the mint, giving an Altoid flavor,” Rubel says. “Mint just needs to be touched lightly. The aromatics and the oils are actually in the stem. So when you garnish with mint, a lot of the flavors are coming from the stem.”
Those who make mint julep, also make the mistake of adding lime-juice, club soda and using lower proof Bourbons, Rubel says. “You have to have a nice high-proof Bourbon, something that will stand up to the crushed ice and all the water content,” Rubel says.
At Silver Dollar, Rubel, who formerly ran Chicago’s legendary Violet Hour, uses Old Weller Antique 107 proof and mint from Kentucky.
“Kentucky mint is light in flavor, but has an effervescence and freshness to it that other mints don’t have.”