As I continue to consume alcoholic beverages on a regular basis, I’m almost never in the mood for a cocktail or mixed drink, especially one made with bourbon as I tend to avoid intrusive ingredients that could potentially diminish my whiskey experience. And to be clear, I’m not the type of snob that discourages people for enjoying their liquor in ways that differ from my own, I’m only saying that sugary mixes and/or fruity concoctions aren’t my thing as I prefer to enjoy bourbon in it’s purest form.
Having said that, around this time of year (DERBY!) I get an unusually strong hankerin’ for a mint julep. Like so many other folks in this area, sipping down this bourbon, simple syrup and mint medley just seems right, if only once a year. Maybe it’s the history behind the drink combined with the tradition and pageantry of the Kentucky Derby, or perhaps these festive drinks are meant to serve as a fun lubrication to help get through another one of these hellish Derby seasons. Either way, I’m game.
Considering that I’m mostly unaware of what a “good” mint julep is supposed to taste like, I figured it’d be fun to take a few suggestions from friends and head out one afternoon and try three different offerings from three very different spots. As a Louisvillian in my mid-30’s, maybe it’s time to finally get fully acquainted with this drink that so many locals rant and rave about. Read on as I attempt to figure out what’s so damned special about the mint julep while trying my hardest to not succumb to the heavy alcohol content of each sip.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This post has been updated as of April 30th, 2018. For obvious reasons, we decided to take down one of our mint julep reviews as we in no way intend to support that particular establishment. We encourage you to visit any of the other many amazing bars in Louisville, just not that one.
THE SILVER DOLLAR
To get things started I made my way to The Silver Dollar, a place that has garnered a reputation for making quality cocktails utilizing a wide variety of bourbons. My julep ($11) consisted of Four Roses Single Barrel and demerara syrup, served in a sort of metallic tin cup loaded with crushed ice with a few leaves of fresh mint tucked in. The drink had a heavy bourbon flavor (which I like) with just a hint of minty sugar, which was a bit surprising. If it weren’t for the scent of mint, I maybe wouldn’t have picked up on the actual taste of mint.
Overall, this was a pleasurable cocktail experience, although not the most memorable one. The bourbon was delicious as it took center stage and the presentation was on point but I’m not a huge fan of crushed ice and I found myself avoiding the mound of frozen water tying to get to the bottom of my cup. After finishing my drink I cleansed my palate with a Lone Star beer and headed on to my next julep experience.
THE BROWN HOTEL
Next, I ventured downtown to The Brown Hotel, a seemingly obvious choice as this historic landmark is a sort of Kentucky staple, not to mention that seemingly everyone I asked about mint juleps in Louisville strongly referred me to this spot. The friendly bartender utilized Old Forester as he worked up a delicious looking concoction that ended up tasting even better than it looked ($14). Like other juleps, this rendition didn’t appear to be overly complicated but for whatever reason the simple syrup (which was made from scratch) and mint flavors were incredibly potent but not overly flavorful to the point of being abrasive. This was an unforgettably refreshing encounter that I thoroughly enjoyed.
As I enjoyed my cocktail, I began to realize that the man playing piano near the bar was actually playing delicate Metallica covers. At this point he was gently performing a delicate version of “Nothing Else Matters” which was certainly unexpected but more than welcome in this mega-fancy hotel. I sipped my drink the way that Special Agent Dale Cooper sipped his coffee in Twin Peaks, completely taken back by the incredible taste and the Brown’s unique atmosphere. A short time later, my glass was empty and I was on my way to my third and last stop.
My last stop was Jack Fry’s in the Highlands. Despite being underdressed, the bartender was super nice and conversational. She methodically worked up my mint julep while explaining why there’s is so good. She explained that this cocktail needs to be kept simple allowing each ingredient to represent itself — there are other places around town that get a little too cute with their interpretations, but not Jack Fry’s. This is the real deal Holyfield.
The bourbon of choice was Old Forester 1870 which went over quite well. I sipped my drink away while taking in the atmosphere of this Louisville staple with an old Chicago flare to it. Unfortunately, I don’t recall what I paid for it, because.. you know. Sorry.
As you’d expect, I was feelin’ it on my Lyft ride home. While each mint julep I had the pleasure of trying offered a different experience, it’s definitely not my favorite drink, or something I’d ever request if it weren’t Derby week. After consuming these three cocktails back to back to back, my pesky julep itch has been more that scratched as my desire for it has gone back into hibernation.
That’s not to say that I won’t have one or two more at whatever Derby party I end up at this Saturday, I’m only saying that there won’t be an open pursuit of a mint julep for another 12 months. I don’t hate Derby, I actually welcome any excuse to party hard in my hometown, but by the time that it’s finally over I’m more than ready to move on. Looking ahead I guess I now have a better understanding of what a mint julep is, although I’m still unsure of what a “standard” julep is supposed to look and taste like. Oh well. If anything this was a fun way to add excitement to my drinking habit, and that’s fine by me.
WORTH MENTIONING: I really wanted to try a cheaper mint julep from a dive bar, but the two I visited both looked at me like a dog that was shown a card trick when I asked for one (The Back Door & The Golden Nugget). Oh well.