Mint juleps get a bad rap. Michael Anderson wants to change that. “Everybody’s had a bad mint julep,” says the Louisvillian. And he knows his juleps. Michael is a fine bartender, to be sure. But in his role with consulting company Hawthorne Beverage Group, he also also trains and educates, and he was happy to talk with TheManual to set us straight on the festive whiskey cocktail that’s trotted out every year at Derby time.
“The plight of the mint julep is in part due to that idea that they’re only made for Derby,” Michael laments. “In reality it’s one of the most beautiful cocktails there is. But the drink has been categorized to ‘I’m in Louisville, I guess I’ll have a mint julep,’ and you go into a dive bar and they hand you a whiskey on the rocks with a sprig of mint in it. I think it’s about time you had a good one.” Fortunately, Michael says, “there are a lot of people out there passionate about giving someone a genuine experience.” And he’s one of them.
“It’s about how you treat the ingredients,” he says. “You have four. If you’re going to have such a short list you have to do it right.” Namely: the mint.
“Some people would be mad about me saying this,” he says, “but the mint is just as important as the whiskey.” Yes, he did just say that standing right in the heart of bourbon country. “The mint julep is all about aroma,” he explains. “The idea of mint, it’s not so much a flavor as it is an aroma. The flavor can be very sharp and pronounced. It’s the aroma of the mint that is therapeutic, refreshing, nostalgic. It’s magical.”
Obviously you want a good whiskey, too. And that’s a very personal decision. “It’s all about what you like, what flavor profiles you’re looking for,” Michael says. Identifying as a rye guy himself, Michael says Bulleit, Four Roses, and Basil Hayden are good examples of bourbons with “a little more pepper and herbal,” he says. “It does kind of connect you with the botanical element [of the mint julep].” If your tastes run more toward the “natural sweetness and round caramel mouth feel of a wheated bourbon, Maker’s Mark comes to mind,” Michael says. “Or reach for Old Fitzgerald or Weller Antique.”
Then there’s the ice. “Crushed ice is very, very important to the mint julep” Michael says. Whether you hammer it yourself in a Lewis bag or buy it – and you can typically find crushed ice at grocers, Michael says – there’s no compromising on the ice.
As for the sugar, Michael likes demerara – raw sugar – for a flavor profile complementary to bourbon. He makes a demerara syrup of two parts sugar to one part water. If you’re making it at home, “always, always watch it,” he says. “Cook at a low temperature and take it off the heat as soon as it’s all liquid.”
Now, to make the drink: “It doesn’t take a lot of effort — just some finesse,” Michael says. “The mint julep is designed on simplicity, but very reliant on technique and care to make a good one.”
Start with the mint — “big, bountiful handfuls of mint.” (Michael recommends you get to know a retailer who’ll sell it to you by the pound.) Start building the aroma by rubbing the inside of the glass with the herb. Smack it around a little to get the oils flying. “If you walk into a bar in Louisville on Oaks night, that whole room should reek of mint,” he says. That’s what you’re going for. No muddling. “People got the idea you can throw this herb into the bottom of a cup and take a big blunt object and absolutely shred it. It’s not the manner in which you want to treat mint,” Michael admonishes.
Next fill your silver julep cup (sorry, there’s just no substitute, though if you absolutely must, you can use a rocks glass) with crushed ice. Pour a teaspoon of syrup over the ice and follow it with an ounce and a half of whiskey. Forget about stirring – following the syrup with the whiskey helps push the sugar down into the ice, Michael explains, while stirring will dilute your drink. Just rap the cup on the bar a couple times to settle the ice, then top it off with more.
And it’s back to the mint. Give the cup a few smacks with the leaves, then loosen a place in the ice and tuck your bouquet down in there, with all the tops visible. Ideally give it a few minutes before serving.
“It is so unbelievably gratifying to have a mint julep that’s made the right way,” Michael says. And now you know the secrets. Go forth and make juleps.