When I was in law school I earned my spending money as a bartender at the Boar’s Head Inn, a venerable Charlottesville institution just west of town. All things considered, it was one of the best jobs I ever had. The bar I worked was a rustic little basement tavern in the Inn’s main building, and my customers were mostly U.Va. alumni in town on business, staying at the Inn. Because they never had to drive to their rooms upstairs, the tabs, and tips, were great.
Being that the Boar’s Head was a fairly upscale watering hole, my uniform was black tie and my repertoire ran the gamut of fancy mixed drinks. But the drink I enjoyed making the most, bar none, was the mint julep, a house specialty. There are two acceptable ways to make a proper mint julep. The quick way and the right way.
Most people know the quick way. That’s the way most mint julep recipes are written. Making a mint julep the quick way first involves “muddling” some fresh mint and sugar in the bottom of a chilled pewter or silver mug.
Glass won’t do. The mug has to be pewter or silver. And chilled. At the Boar’s Head, we kept a stock of refrigerated pewter mugs at the ready at all times.
And the mint has to be fresh, of course. You can buy fresh mint sprigs at the produce section, but at the Boar’s Head we had mint planted out back, a lot of it, in an area we could close off when the weather got bad.
Muddling involves taking a few fresh mint leaves, some sugar, and some soda water, maybe a quarter inch, and mashing them up in the bottom of the mug with a wooden pestle. Take your time when you’re doing it. The more you crush up the mint leaves, the more mint flavor you release into the sweetened soda water.
Here’s where you add the alcohol. Bourbon, a shot or so. I used Old Grand Dad or Woodford Reserve. Once the mint is crushed up and the bourbon added, you need to pack the mug with shaved ice. Crushed ice will do in a pinch, but the best ice to use is shaved. You know, the kind you see at the boardwalk in the summer at the Hawaiian Shaved Ice machines.
That’s because, deep down, a mint julep is really just an alcoholic snow cone, and the thinner shaved ice flakes help pick up and defuse the mint flavor.
Once the ice is packed in firmly, take a straw and plunge back and forth into the ice, working the sweetened mint water and bourbon up into the ice. This will liquefy some of the shaved ice and give you some room at the top of the mug. During this process, you can add sugar to taste, making sure to work it into the ice while you’re doing it.
When you’re finished working the mint up into the ice, you need to re-pack the ice, although it shouldn’t be packed flat at the top. Go for presentation here, a loose layer of ice at the top is what you’re looking for.
Spread some sugar on top, and garnish with a few mint sprigs. Add two drinking straws cut short. Why short? So that when you drink it, you’ll have your nose close to catch the mint bouquet. Yes, I said “bouquet.” The mint julep is that kind of drink.
Believe it or not, that was the quick way to make a mint julep. If you have the time to prepare beforehand, though, there’s a better way to do it. You see, the muddling process is just a quick and dirty way to make the sweetened mint syrup for the drink. If you have the mint syrup already prepared, or (shudder) purchased, then you’re a step ahead of the game.
Making it is kind of like making sweet mint tea. Take equal parts water and sugar in a medium heavy saucepan over medium heat, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Increase the heat a little bit and let simmer for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Take the pan off the heat, add the mint leaves, and steep for fifteen minutes.
Strain the mixture, and refrigerate the syrup until cold. That’s pretty much it. The syrup makes a better julep because the mint flavor has permeated the mixture more completely, and it flows up into the ice more thoroughly as it’s mixed in. You also don’t have little chunks of mint leaves scattered everywhere in the ice.