Okay, so the Kentucky Derby isn’t running this year (or at least not when it is supposed to be). All of the pageantry many get used to will not exist, but that does not mean that you cannot party (by yourself while stuck in your house) as if the derby is still going on. Get out your finest seersucker suit and hat, dust off the pewter cups, and make sure you’ve got mint and sugar on hand. Once you’ve done that, there’s only one thing left to do — get bourbon so you can make a mint julep!
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, almost 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. To stick close to Churchhill Downs, too, we only selected bourbons made in Kentucky.
Four Roses Single Barrel
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.
Knob Creek 100 Proof
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.
Wild Turkey 101
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.
Maker’s Mark Cask Strength
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. Each year, they put out a custom label for the Derby. You can see 2019’s above.
Old Forester Signature 100 Proof
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 Kentucky 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 — the official drink of the derby — which comes in at 60 proof.
New Riff Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
This high rye bourbon from New Riff (a member of the B-Line), is the core expression from the distillery and is a big, bold, and savory bourbon that stands up in any cocktail. The full-bodied butterscotch and vanilla notes pair well with the sugar in the julep and you won’t have to worry about the ice diluting the 100 proof spirit.
Michter’s US-1 Limited Release Barrel Strength Bourbon
While we’d normally suggest this special release from Michter’s be consumed neat or with a cube (perhaps even in their downtown cocktail bar), this is the derby, a special occasion in Louisville, so we have added it to our list and encourage you to use a little to celebrate. Barrel strength, this release is rich in flavor and on the palate, with caramel, candied fruits, vanilla, and some oak notes all making themselves known. In other words, it’ll add nice depth to your julep without having to add other ingredients.
Barton 1792 Full Proof
You probably know Barton 1792 Distillery from either the rickhouse collapse or the mash spill accidents of the past year or so. You probably knew them before that, though, for their award-winning full proof bourbon, which is yet another great option when making a julep. You’ll find notes of caramel and spice lead caramel, oak, and vanilla — all with a nice backbone.
Rabbit Hole Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Coming out of one of the newer distilleries in downtown Louisville, Rabbit Hole Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey is made from a mash bill not often seen in bourbon – 70% corn, 10% wheat, 10% malted honey barley, and 10% malted barley. This mix of grains give a wonderful honeyed flavor to the bourbon, which accentuates the mint in a julep nicely.
Need a refresher on how to make a mint julep? Here’s the classic recipe.
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