Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Countdown to Derby Day: The Mint Julep

Posted By and on Tue, Apr 30, 2013 at 1:42 PM

If the Kentucky Derby is the ultimate Southern carnival for grownups - where the stakes are higher than the Dunk Tank, the horses are real, not tethered to a carousel, and the action's faster than the Tilt-a-Whirl - then the mint julep is surely the adult Snow-Cone. Instead of a rapidly wilting paper funnel, you've got a delicately frosted pewter cup (or, failing that, the small part of a cocktail shaker), and the syrup's made from freshly muddled mint instead of artificial cherry goo.

We learned the cocktail-shaker trick from Miles MacQuarrie, the phenom behind the bar at Leon's in Decatur. If you want to get all fancy about it, the traditional julep cup can be silver etched with some evocative pattern, but you can use an old-fashioned glass in a pinch. Beyond that, try not to take too many liberties - remember, this is the South, where appearances matter as much as what's on the inside.

* Which is, chiefly, ice. So much ice that Leon's will employ a full-time Ice Crusher during its Derby party. Historically, plantation owners and other "iced-up" members of the Southern gentry (meaning, literally, people who could afford to freeze water) served juleps as a way to signal their high-born status.

* And bourbon. Aim for 90-proof or higher to keep it honest - things will get a little melty what with all that ice. Leon's hand-picks its house label, small-batch Elijah Craig. For those of us who lack special privileges at a top distillery, Miles recommends 12-year Elijah Craig or Buffalo Trace.

* And mint.

* And more mint. Mint is two ingredients in a julep: 10-15 leaves to muddle and at least 4 sprigs to garnish. If you grow your own, go for spearmint or sweet mint.

* It ain't Southern if it ain't sweet! One-to-one simple syrup should do the trick.

Now that you've got your fixings together, it's time to get fixing. First, cup the mint leaves gently in your hand and caress them, taking care not to rip or tear lest the chlorophyll ruin everything with its bitter, bitter tears. Lay them in the ready vessel along with a scant tablespoon of the sweet stuff; coax them together with a muddler. Add 2 ounces bourbon to the mix and pile on a mound of crushed ice. Let everything mingle on its own until the glass perspires. Finish things off with those sprigs of mint. Then it's off to the races!

For those of you who prefer just to watch, Leon's will play host to a capitol Derby party. You'll find Miles along with his team behind the bar pouring julep after julep. Compete to win the Big Hat Contest and place your bets with a clear conscience - whatever the house wins will benefit the Decatur Arts Alliance.

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