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Balance is everything with mint juleps

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Updated: June 3, 2012 8:02AM

In 1987, a friend and I each put $20 on Ferdinand to win the Kentucky Derby. Coming in about 20:1, Ferdinand won us hundreds, convincing us we were, indeed, savvy racetrack aficionados.

Ever since, we’ve placed annual Derby bets. Our luck, shall we say, has been very bad. The mint juleps sipped track-side have been much worse.

I asked Charles Joly, mixologist extraordinaire at The Drawing Room, how such a good drink could end up so bad.

“Some of the worst mint juleps I’ve ever had were at the Kentucky Derby,” Joly told me. “While it’s relatively simple to prepare, it takes care to get the balance right. Juleps are intended to be well-iced sipping cocktails. Because we’ll see up to 3 ounces of spirit in the drink, you have to carefully balance the base with sweetener to round everything out. Taking time to crush [the] ice and [placing] a generous bouquet of mint as garnish ties the drink together.”

The simple recipe for the julep is mint muddled with sugar, with bourbon and ice. With mint growing everywhere right now, it’s wonderful to be able to collect a key ingredient for this cocktail growing wild. I echo Joly’s suggestion to crush the ice: increasing the surface area of the ice helps cool and dilute the strong liquor.

British writer John Davis was the first to mention juleps in his 1803 Travels of Four Years and a Half in the United States of America, recording they were made of mint, sugar and… “the purest French brandy.”

Brandy?! French?!

Bourbon usually is the stock spirit for juleps, but hearkening to origins, Joly uses a Remy Martin Cognac 1738, explaining that “the balance of fruit and barrel influences provides a base that won’t get lost and has a great depth and complexity.”

Brandy might still be in juleps were it not for the late 19th century Phylloxera blight that wiped out two-thirds of French vineyards. Without grapes, no brandy; without brandy, mixologists turned to Kentucky’s own: bourbon.

Whether you use bourbon or cognac, a mint julep proves excellent balm for those who, like me, will need a little soothing Saturday after everyone else’s horses have crossed the finish line at Churchill Downs.

David Hammond is an Oak Park writer and contributor to WBEZ (91.5 FM) and E-mail

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