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.
WARNING: The pictures you’re about to see were taken by me on an iPhone are far from perfect. Deal with it.
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.
HAYMARKET WHISKEY BAR
As a wildcard, I popped in to Haymarket not even sure if they offered a mint julep. Thankfully, our bartender was super nice and worked one up despite it not yet being on the menu (this was the Sunday before Derby). He started off by manually crushing a load of ice in a bag over the bar counter. He served the bourbon and ice in a tin cup, but rather than adding sugar water, he dropped in a few sugar cubes and let them slowly dissolve into the cocktail. I’d never seen this done before, so I was a bit surprised by it (which means nothing considering I know jack shit about cocktails).
The drink was smooth and tasty, and a bit like Silver Dollar version as I tasted mostly bourbon, the difference being that there was just a bit more sweetness. I wish I paid more attention as he was making it because I didn’t see what bourbon he used (I was in the restroom). Having said that, I really enjoyed this interpretation very much. Maybe too much because I don’t even remember what the hell I paid for it. D’oh.
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.