The 144th running of the Kentucky Derby is coming up and it’s time to prepare. You’ve already got your seersucker suit and your hat, and you’ve also already purchased your pewter cup (and the mint and the sugar, but let’s be real, as long as the mint is fresh who really cares all that much about these two things). All that’s left? The key ingredient to any half-way decent mint julep, of course: bourbon!
While simple to make, a mint julep’s quality comes down to the quality of the whiskey. In this drink, there’s not a lot you (or anything) can do to mask a terrible spirit and still have a potent and palatable potable. For any good mint julep, you need good bourbon, plain and simple.
To help steer you in the right direction, we’ve put together a list of the best bourbons you should be using in your mint juleps this year. As you’ll notice, all of these bourbons come in at least 100-proof, or 50 percent ABV. This helps the bourbon stand up to the melting crushed ice over the course of the drink. A lower-proof bourbon will work, but it’ll taste watered down.
One of the best in the Four Roses line (at least we think so), Single Barrel is a high rye content (35 percent) bourbon that comes in at 100-proof and explodes with flavor right from the outset. In a julep, this translates to a sustained honey and oak flavor that goes incredibly well with the sweetness added by sugar syrup.
Nutty on the nose with a sweet oaky body, Knob Creek 100 Proof is a prime example of what good can come at 100 proof. The slight fruity sweetness on the front and back end of the palate pair perfectly with the mint in the julep. These flavors only get better as the Julep melts a little bit.
The flagship Wild Turkey bourbon, 101 has the body and character that is perfect on its own or in a variety of drinks (the mint julep, obviously, included). Vanilla and oak flavors contribute a nice mix to the mint and sugar, leaving you with an all-around delicious beverage.
The Maker’s Mark you know and love, but at cask strength. A full-bodied wheated whisk(e)y, the molasses and dark fruit flavors that come out hold their own, even through dilution from ice. If you’re looking for a stronger bourbon, this is one to check out for your juleps.
This wouldn’t be a mint julep bourbon list without the official bourbon of Churchill Downs, where the Kentucky Derby takes place. Woodford Reserve is crafted by master distiller Chris Morris to work with a wide variety of flavors, mint included. You can read more about the creation of their special edition bottle for 2018 here.
Another standard when it comes to delicious bourbons, Old Forester’s story goes to 1870 when George Garvin Brown made the brand’s first bottled bourbon (older even than the Kentuck Derby). The 100 Proof expression has coffee and chocolate on the nose, followed by sweet apple and toasted oak on the palate. For those that don’t want to make their own mint julep, Old Forester also puts out a premixed variety,which comes in at 60 proof.
Need a refresher on how to make a mint julep? Here’s the classic recipe.