04/21/2010 12:00AM

Best mint julep? Your own

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Woodford Reserve/Tiffany & Co.
Tiffany's silver cup and Woodford Reserve charity mint julep will set you back $1,000.

Everybody has a julep recipe, but almost no one knows for certain how the iconic cocktail of the Kentucky Derby came about.

Most historians believe it began as the Middle Eastern julap, a rosewater concoction, which was carried westward by returning crusaders. The julep gradually evolved into almost any kind of herb-infused medicinal syrup and could contain a number of spices or flavorings, from rose to mint to cinnamon. In the late 1700s, there are references to juleps, julips, or julaps in North America. But they don't bear much resemblance to the modern mint julep. In 1787, one anonymous traveler offered this often-quoted description: "The Virginian rises in the morning, about six o'clock. He then drinks a julap, made of rum, water, and sugar, but very strong."

The first published American recipe that looks like the drink you will find at Churchill Downs is from 1803, when traveler John Davis defines a julep as "a dram of spirituous liquor that has mint steeped in it, taken by Virginians of a morning."

Bourbon didn't become the julep's staple alcohol until Carolinians and Virginians who favored the drink made their way into Kentucky's wilderness.

"We like to say that the julep's progress stopped in Kentucky because, once it reached the point of perfection, it didn't evolve anymore," said Chris Morris, master distiller at Woodford Reserve in Versailles, Ky.

The mint julep (and specifically the Early Times mint julep for the last two decades) became the official drink of the Kentucky Derby in 1938, but newspaper accounts at the Filson Historical Society in Louisville show julep cups being awarded at Kentucky racetracks as early as 1816 - so clearly people in the Bluegrass state were well familiar with the drink and its proper cup almost 60 years before Aristides beat Volcano by a length in 1875, when the Kentucky Derby's first running was just a May Monday's feature race.

"Most mixed drinks, cocktails, have their origins in America, from colonial America all the way up to and including the Prohibition era," Morris said. "But if you follow the history of the julep, it's one of the oldest, period.

"Historically, though things have changed since Prohibition, many medicinal products were simply whiskey and various local mints, and sugar, and they were bottled that way," Morris said. "Even today, if you take sugar and peppermint, it will calm your digestive system, and whiskey will calm your nerves."

Plenty of people think juleps still taste like medicine. But Morris decries the bad reputation of the mint julep, and so do many bartenders and "mixologists" who insist that if you make a proper one yourself, avoid mass-produced pre-mixed impostors, and hone your recipe to suit your own taste, you'll become one of the world's happy mint julep connoisseurs.

"This is one of the things we crusade about, almost," Morris said. "If you make your own julep and you make it right, it's going to be delicious. You want to use a fine bourbon like Woodford Reserve, and if it's too sweet, make the next one with less sugar. If you want it sweeter, add more sugar. It's not carved in stone. Make the drink until you will like it, and you will."

Putting an individual twist on the mint julep has become a trend. There are mint julep martinis, chocolate mint juleps, and all sorts of other recipes from Louisville to London to Ljubljana. The strangest that Morris has heard of is the jocuse julep, which appeared in the old Mr. Boston Bar Guide and mixes bourbon, creme de menthe, lime juice, and sparkling water to bizarre effect (at least in the julep purist's eyes). Newer experimentations have added spritzes of soda, hints of ginger, peach essence, and more.

"In many of the metropolitan areas and upscale bars, they're creating the mint julep as more of a standard across-the-bar drink, and they're all delicious," Morris insisted. "It's fun to explore."

Creative? Bastardization? Or just plain tacky? Depends on who you ask. At Louisville's Old Seelbach Bar, an Englishman behind the bar is a latecomer to the hazards and joys of the julep but insists it's best to stick to the traditional.

"You shouldn't really mess with it," said Edward Winfield. He had never heard of a julep until he moved to the U.S. in 1994, but now he makes hundreds every spring. "Whether you like them or not, the julep is what it is. People have an expectation, and you don't want to vary from that too much."

Winfield has good reason to hew closely to old Lousivillian standards. And it isn't because of local tastes.

"Locals don't really drink them, unless they go to the track," Winfield said. "It's more of an out-of-towner thing."

If you're looking for a really splashy mint julep, you can always spring for one of the $1,000 charity juleps that Woodford Reserve and Tiffany & Co. will sell for this year's Derby. There are 73 available, one for each year the mint julep has been the official Derby drink, and proceeds from their sale will benefit The Barnstable Brown Kentucky Diabetes & Obesity Center. Each julep will be made in a silver Tiffany cup and will feature, according to Woodford Reserve, "a unique set of ingredients from around the globe: raw-cane sugar made from 100-percent organic cane sugar grown in Brazil; Kentucky Colonel Mint from Louisville, Ky., which was grown in a used Woodford Reserve bourbon barrel; ice made of water from a 10,000-year-old glacier in the far northern region of the Pacific Ocean near the Gulf of Alaska; and a small batch of the Master Distiller's personal selection of Woodford Reserve super-premium bourbon."

As long as you're 21 or older, you can order one at www.woodfordreservemintjulep.com, then pick it up at Churchill Downs on Derby day.

Churchill has indulged in other unusual juleps in the past: the track and Early Times made a 6-foot acrylic julep glass, the world's largest, in 2008. It held 206 gallons of cocktail.

Woodford's master distiller Chris Morris has some advice for amateur julep-makers.

"I've always been a big advocate of making each julep fresh, not with syrup that's been sitting around for a week in the refrigerator," he said. "Plus, it's more fun. If you're having a Derby party, it's a ritual. The experience of making a mint julep in front of your friends or having them make their own is so simple and fun."

Or you can make the task more complex and lyrical, as New Orleans bartender Chris McMillian famously has at the Ritz-Carlton in the Big Easy. With every mint julep he makes, McMillian also recites Kentucky's most famous recipe for the Derby's signature drink. Published around 1900 in "Kentucky Whiskies," it was attributed to J. Soule Smith, who described the julep as "the mint julep, the very dream of drinks." It reads, in part:

"Who has not tasted one has lived in vain. The honey of Hymettus brought no such solace to the soul; the nectar of the gods is tame beside it. ...

"When it is made, sip it slowly. August suns are shining, the breath of the south wind is upon you. It is fragrant, cold, and sweet - it is seductive. No maiden's touch could be more passionate. Sip it and dream, it is a dream itself. No other land can give so sweet a solace for your cares; no other liquor soothes you so in melancholy days. Sip it and say there is no solace for the soul, no tonic for the body, like old Bourbon whiskey."

Chris Morris's Woodford Reserve Julep

1 level teaspoon of confectioner's sugar (powdered sugar).

2-3 fresh mint leaves.

Woodford Reserve bourbon.

Put sugar and mint leaves in the bottom of a julep cup. Add two to three drops of Woodford Reserve. "Many recipes call for spring water, but, my gosh, why not just start with the bourbon and use that as your spring water?" Morris said.

Muddle together: "I'll really work that mint leaf until you can't tell it's a leaf anymore, until you've got a greenish, minty-colored sugar paste in the bottom of the cup."

Add crushed ice, almost two-thirds of the way to the top of the cup. At this point, add mint sprig garnish and a straw, which should be no more than one-half inch over the lip of the julep cup.

Tap the ice down firmly. Add two ounces of Woodford Reserve. Then add a layer of loose crushed ice on top.

"Every time you draw a sip through your straw, you draw the bourbon through that ice, and it gets super-cold and runs through that sugar-mint paste and up the straw," Morris said. "So you're actually mixing each sip as you do it. It's delicious that way."

The Early Times Mint Julep

2 oz. Early Times Kentucky Whisky.

1 tablespoon simple syrup.

Mint sprigs.

Crushed ice.

Simple syrup: 1 cup water, 1 cup sugar, 1 bunch fresh mint sprigs.

Make simple syrup: Combine sugar and water. Boil for five minutes without stirring. Pour mix over a handful of mint leaves and gently crush the mint with a spoon. Refrigerate overnight in a closed jar. Remove mint leaves but keep in refrigerator. Will keep for several weeks.

Make julep: Crush a few mint leaves in the bottom of a silver julep cup, then fill with crushed ice. Add one tablespoon of simple syrup and two ounces of Early Times. Stir rapidly with a spoon until glass frosts. Garnish with a fresh mint sprig.

J. Soule Smith's Julep

"Take from the cold spring some water, pure as angels are; mix it with sugar until it seems like oil. Then take a glass and crush your mint within it with a spoon - crush it around the borders of the glass and leave no place untouched. Then throw the mint away - it is a sacrifice.

"Fill with cracked ice the glass; pour in the quantity of Bourbon which you want. It trickles slowly through the ice. Let it have time to cool, then pour your sugared water over it. No spoon is needed, no stirring is allowed - just let it stand a moment. Then around the brim place sprigs of mint, so that the one who drinks may find a taste and odor at one draught."