As someone who has been covering spirits in Kentucky for over a decade, let me let you in on a little secret: mint juleps are not exactly universally loved there. In fact, ordering a mint julep at a Louisville bar is the quickest way to get spotted by a Derby tourist. That’s because no one really comes around to order them otherwise – except, perhaps, a single obligatory trackside julep in the name of tradition.
The main complaint I’ve heard (and experienced) is that juleps tend to get too sweet. This makes sense because a mint julep is usually made by combining bourbon, mint, and simple sugar syrup over ice. When the mix is off, it might taste like someone raided the liquor cabinet and muddled the loot with toothpaste and table sugar. This is especially true if the cocktail is made with the cloying julep mix found at the supermarket or big box liquor stores.
That said, Kentucky bartenders easily spend the weeks leading up to Derby tossing thousands of juleps. But what do they really think of this controversial drink? While the overwhelming consensus is that there are probably better ways to enjoy your bourbon, some are hoping to change that sentiment.
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“Our palates crave bitterness and acid no matter what, so this is a veritable sugar bomb with no balance,” said Nicole Stipp, co-founder of Matson & Gilman, a bourbon-centric concierge service. in Louisville. “In a city full of talented and inventive bartenders, the julep just falls by the wayside when you have such incredible libations to choose from.”
Beyond that, Eron Plevan, beverage manager and bar manager at Gold Bar, said juleps can be tricky to do well.
“I think most bartenders give mint julep a good look because despite all the trouble, it’s just old-fashioned — but three times the work,” he said. “First you have to go and find a decent, rust-free julep box – something a lot of bars don’t have. Then you have to crush the ice by hand [and] during volume. It’s boring, especially if you don’t have the right tools.”
Finally, you have to have good mint.
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“Again, something that many bars rarely have,” he said. “In addition to all of these things, you have to muddle the mint well and then make sure you have a nice aromatic bouquet for the garnish instead of something with soft or wilted leaves. Ultimately making a mint julep requires all the work of a mojito with all the taste of a sad old bad game.”
Despite this, Plevan and other bartenders have found ways to get creative with julep.
“Even though a julep is rarely the favorite of the pros, I think playing around with the formula a little makes the julep better,” said Felicia Corbett, beverage manager at Louisville’s Trouble Bar. “I always like to add fruit or herbs. Another fun way to spice up a mint julep is to play around with the syrup. You can add anything to your simple syrup or opt for a completely different sweetener like reduction balsamic, honey or maple syrup. The world is yours!”
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Likewise, Plevan had fun experimenting with different syrups, such as peach or strawberry, to radically alter the flavor of the drink.
“Using herbs and spices like basil, sage, or cinnamon can create an unforgettable julep,” he says. “Everything has its place, so I’m happy to do a julep under the right circumstances.”
Meanwhile, Samantha Montgomery, national brand ambassador for the Bardstown Bourbon Company, argues that many who think they don’t like mint juleps may just not have had a good one.
“I feel like if you have it the right way, to your desired sweetness, more fresh mint in a cold julep box with that little capful of crushed ice,” Montgomery said. “If you have it like this, it’s impossible not to enjoy it. It’s actually one of my favorite cocktails.”
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