I actually debated on whether to use the mint julep for a That's What She Drank feature, because as an animal advocate, well, I know a little too much about what goes on behind the scenes with racing animals, and this is the official drink of the derby, but, only since 1938. The mint julep has a history that goes back much further, and quite frankly, that shouldn't be held against it. Besides, the main ingredient is glorious, wonderful, tasty bourbon, (although earlier recipes used brandy, cognac or rum). It's roots are in the middle east traced back to the year 900, where a drink thought to enhance health was made of rose petals and water called a julab. Mint entered the scene once the drink made its way to the Mediterranean, but it was still medicinal at this point and didn't really become a cocktail until the 18th century, and was first seen in print at the start of the 19th century (1803 to be exact). It was consumed copiously by Andrew Jackson as he gave his own peculiar contribution to the darker side of history. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote about it. Teddy Roosevelt had his own twist on the recipe that purists found offensive and during his time at the White House, Teddy even grew beds of mint for the drink that the next president, Calvin Coolidge let his chickens eat and destroy, (Coolidge was really into prohibition, and apparently so were his birds). The mint julep is Scarlet O'Hara's father's favorite drink in Gone With the Wind. Ernest Hemmingway had to have a quality mint julep or the whole thing would end up smashed against the nearest wall and Ray Charles sang about it and turned it into a hit record.
It was also considered a "morning drink" through the 18th and 19th centuries. Can you imagine living during a time when "morning drinks" are the norm? Wait... we did have the pandemic...
Bourbon and spearmint are traditionally used, but there are plenty of variations of the mint julep, with adding muddled berries, flavored mints, (I'm a big fan of pineapple mint), and you can even use flavored bourbons or different kinds of simple syrup. Teddy Roosevelt's personal julep recipe used rye whiskey (gasp!), and a dash of brandy (an even bigger gasp!!). Now the folks over at Food & Wine say the sweetness of the drink and the mint ratio should be balanced, and say not to smash or muddle the mint leaves into a paste as some recipes say to do. The reason is the pulverization of the mint will result in a bitter mint taste - but if that's your thing, pulverize and smash away - but if you're more like me, and think there's enough bitterness in the world that it doesn't also need to be in our drinks, you'll want to just press the mint leaves to release the oils. They even recommend rubbing the glass with mint leaves and say to always serve it with a straw, because it's not a "sipping" cocktail. The other important thing, is that if you're making more than one, make them one at a time for freshness.
As for the types of bourbon to use - I'm a fan of Angel's Envy, Knob Creek and Old Grand-Dad, which is surprisingly smooth, not to mention one of the oldest brands out there. If you've never tried it, don't be fooled by the price - it's a staple in many bartender's cabinet for a reason. Ultimately though, use the bourbon you love.
Classic Mint Julep
4-5 Sprigs of Fresh Mint, (plus a few leaves to garnish)
2 oz Bourbon
1/2 - 1 oz Simple Syrup (to taste)
Place the mint leaves in a rocks or hi ball glass, or, if you have them, a julep cup. Add simple syrup and gently muddle well to release the oils from the mint, avoiding tearing or smashing the leaves, (unless you want that bitter taste, then go ahead and let the out the week's frustrations muddling). Add bourbon and stir well. Fill the glass with crushed ice and when the glass becomes chilled and frosted, give the julep a good stir and enjoy!