Saturday, June 20, 2009

Mint Juleps

Since retiring, I've tried to organize my life around projects. Sometimes they're writing projects, maybe a self-improvement effort or an undertaking to improve my sporting clays shooting. I made a New Years resolution this year to raise my fly-casting skills to the next level. This spring I even upgraded the wiring and plumbing on my swimming pool. Recently, however, I hit on a great idea for my next project, given that I grew up right smack dab in the middle of the bourbon distilling region of Kentucky. I'm experimenting to find the best recipe for mint juleps.

I tried a mint julep decades ago, one of those Kentucky Derby specials that taste like a mixture of creme de menthe, Karo syrup and Very Old Barton, and swore never again to taste such a vile concoction. Years later, at a business dinner in Atlanta at Pittypat's Porch, I noticed that mint juleps were a house specialty. I ordered one and discovered that it wasn't mint juleps I hated, but bad mint juleps.

You might assume this project is self-serving, decadent or simply unimportant (my wife thought it all three), but it actually poses a number of intellectual challenges that I believe I have cleverly resolved. It is an optimization problem, actually, that requires determining the maximum rate at which the tester can drink mint juleps without becoming sick of mint juleps (or just plain sick), without losing the ability to read and execute a recipe, and yet not extending the process so long that the tester simply loses interest before completing the project.

It should go without saying that one should not overlap a project like this one, in an attempt to maximize productivity, with projects such as the aforementioned upgrades to swimming pool wiring and plumbing, or improving one's shotgun skills.

I completed an experimentation session earlier, which explains why the last paragraph took over a half hour to write. . . I need to lie down now.

OK, I'm back. (Where did the afternoon go?)

The first challenge is how to run many tests of a drink that you wouldn't want to have every day. Mint juleps have a very strong bourbon flavor and they're sweet. That makes them ideal for a dessert substitute after a meal of say, pork barbecue or grilled filet mignon coated with peppery Montreal Grill Seasoning, or in lieu of a midafternoon lemonade on the porch, but one is typically plenty. I considered mixing half recipes, but some recipes are difficult to split and might call into question the validity of the test results.

It occurred to me to mix the drink but only taste it and throw the rest away. That turned out to require more willpower than I apparently possess. I finally decided to mix two different full recipe drinks at a time, one for my wife and one for me, and to taste hers. She is not a mint julep fan though, so I usually end up finishing hers off after mine. Waste not, want not.

The next challenge is the cost of purchasing several brands of bourbon. This I easily resolved by buying those little airline bottles. Fortunately, the local ABC store stocks a wide variety of small bottles of bourbon. I know this because when I go to a Tar Heel football game, bourbon's distinct bouquet wafts through the stands just as strongly as it it did when I was growing up near Bardstown, Kentucky and because the bathrooms are littered with tiny, empty Ancient Age and Maker's Mark bottles. I guess fans need the privacy because drinking at the stadium is prohibited, but it does seem like they could find a more appropriate location to mix a drink than a men's room stall. (The ACC bans the sale of alcohol at conference events, unlike the SEC, where drinking at a football game is a requirement for admission.)

I found through extensive experimentation that a good mint julep requires good bourbon, but not necessarily sipping-grade bourbon. I learned that for sipping, Rob Creek really knocks. I'm sorry, I meant to say, "Knob Creek really rocks". This nine-year-old bourbon is distilled just a few miles from the high school I attended. It didn't significantly improve the taste of my mint juleps, though, because the sugar and mint mask the subtleties of the bourbon's taste.

Fresh mint is readily available in grocery store produce departments, but my wife grows it in an herb garden on the deck so I just pick a handful. If you decide to grow your own, plant it in a pot rather than a flowerbed, because the stuff spreads like kudzu.

Mint julep recipes range from simple to extremely complex. Food Network suggests a recipe for the perfect mint julep that serves ten to twelve and requires no less than twenty-four hours and thirty minutes to cook. Yeah, cook. I don't want a mint julep that badly. Ever.

Many of the recipes differ on the simple syrup component. The more complex approach is to boil equal parts water and sugar until the sugar completely dissolves, then cool the mixture until it becomes a syrup. A much simpler approach with no pot to wash is mixing a tablespoon of superfine sugar with two tablespoons of hot water. Garden & Gun magazine printed a nice recipe using superfine sugar. (By the way, if you have any interest at all in the lifestyle of the South, this evocatively named magazine is a must.) I have found that stirring the hot water and superfine sugar until the mixture is clear provides a result that is nearly indistinguishable from the simple syrup recipes and has the added benefit of using only half the sugar. I like the slightly less sweet taste.

Some recipes differ from the classic enough to offend traditionalists. Bobby Flay, for example, suggests adding six or eight muddled blackberries to allow the tangy fruit to complement the sweetness of the simple syrup. Blackberries have been my favorite fruit since I first tried my grandma's blackberry cobbler, so I appreciate this addition. I found it to be a nice change of pace that I would consider under the right circumstances, such as having recently tasted dozens of mint juleps without blackberries.

Ultimately, I decided that the best mint julep is a traditional recipe with superfine sugar, though using simple syrup provides a comparable, but slightly sweeter drink. I suggest a good bourbon, but not sipping-grade unless you just happen to have some on hand. If you were born in the South, don't use the Woodford Reserve you keep in the study for Christmas and Derby Day, use the Ancient Age you keep in the hurricane emergency supply kit, you know, next to the bottled water and the flashlight batteries:

A Near-Perfect Mint Julep

2 oz. (4 Tbsp) good bourbon (great bourbon acceptable, but unnecessary)
1 oz. (2 Tbsp) hot water
2 oz. (1 Tbsp) superfine sugar
8 mint leaves and one mint sprig for garnish
crushed ice (absolutely necessary)
a straw

Put the hot water into an old-fashioned or mint julep glass and add the sugar. Stir until the mixture is clear. Add the mint leaves and bruise them with a muddler or wooden spoon to extract the oil from the leaves. Do this somewhat gently; dont try to beat the oil out of them. Add the bourbon, fill the glass with crushed ice slightly mounded over the top of the glass and insert the mint sprig garnish. Insert a straw and cut it off about two inches above the glass so you smell the mint sprig when you sip. Stir the drink slightly with the straw.

The crushed ice is a key component. If you mix this drink and immediately take a sip, you're going to get a shot of nearly straight bourbon that will knock your socks off, which is fine if you actually want your socks knocked off. If you're happy with your socks, it's best to wait a couple of minutes until a little crushed ice melts and makes a kinder, gentler drink.

Of course, if you wait too long on a hot day, all that crushed ice will melt and soon water down the drink, but this drink is so good you're going to finish it long before that happens.

I prefer this recipe because the additional preparation time of more complex recipes doesn't add that much to the taste. It's an excellent compromise between expediency and taste. This is not a drink that you'll crave often, but when you do, it really hits the spot.

Personally, though, I don't think I'll need another for quite a while.

I need to lie down now.

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