I DON’T KNOW how your garden grows, but if I attempt to put together a tray full of juleps on Kentucky Derby day—the second Saturday in May—I have to cut my struggling mint plants down to the ground. It’s not until August that my humble patch puts out enough leaves to get me through the inevitable second round. Thankfully, that’s just in time for those summer days when soaring temperatures in my shadeless backyard reach Dixieland levels. And, as it turns out, a backyard is just about the only place where one can enjoy a right proper julep, for there is no drink in the entire pantheon of classic cocktails more likely to go wrong when ordered in a bar. Requiring only ice, a few spearmint leaves, sugar, and good Kentucky bourbon, it’s not a difficult recipe. Some folks muddle the mint; some don’t. Some steep it in simple syrup ahead of time, which is a handy method for making a lot of juleps. But even if you’re lucky enough to find a barkeep born and raised in Louisville, the hitch, most likely, will be the ice.
“Bars generally don’t have crushed ice on hand, and without that, it’s simply not a julep,” says Lance J. Mayhew, one of the co-founders of the Oregon Bartenders Guild and the mixologist at 50 Plates, a recently opened restaurant in the Pearl District that specializes in regional American cuisine. It’s only when the whiskey is chilled quickly over fi nely crushed ice that the drink’s temperature will dip to that magical point at which a layer of frost forms on the cup—and the first sip refreshes like a glorious, mintkissed, alcohol-laden snow cone.
Fortunately, for those of you without a backyard, Mayhew is dedicated to making juleps in the high Kentucky style and has equipped the bar at 50 Plates with a Waring commercial ice crusher and traditional metal julep cups (which keep the drink cold longer than glass does).
But if heat-induced torpor has you confined to the back 40, here’s his recipe: In the bottom of a glass that’s been chilled in the freezer—or a silver julep cup, if you’re feeling fancy—gently muddle 10 to 12 mint leaves in ½ ounce of simple syrup (1 part sugar, 1 part water). Fill the cup with crushed ice and pour 3 ounces of bourbon over the top (Mayhew recommends Buffalo Trace; I prefer Wild Turkey 101). Stir until the glass frosts. For garnish, slap one more mint sprig
against the counter to release the aroma, and nestle it into the ice.