The premise of the Mint Julep is simple: Bourbon, mint, sugar—some assembly required. But therein lies the key. We spoke with Chris McMillian in our May/June 2023 issue about the history of the cocktail and his preferences for building the drink. As a longtime New Orleans bartender and owner of the Revel Cafe & Bar, McMillian has mixed up a julep or two (thousand), and he remains an ardent appreciator of crafting the best Mint Julep possible.
Being the singular flavored component, fresh mint is essential. “I don’t think you can use too much mint,” says McMillian. “I think the main danger is the over-extraction of the mint, and the more mint you use, the less extraction it requires.” Using about five or six sprigs’ worth of mint leaves, McMillian recommends adding a small portion of the drink’s simple syrup to the cup (about 1/4 ounce) to act as a binding agent. He then gently muddles the mint around the full interior of the cup, creating a “mint oil-and-sugar rinse, if you will.”
Cool it Down
While the primary function of the ice in a julep is to make the drink a frosty, refreshing delight, it also plays a central role in the dilution—and evolution—of the cocktail. The best Mint Julep will transform slightly with every sip. “When you start off, it’s very intensely alcoholic, but as you drink it, it becomes more diluted,” says McMillian. “And because the sugar is heavier than the alcohol, it can collect at the bottom of the drink, so the deeper in you get, the sweeter it becomes. The mint infusion will also grow. It’s a drink where every sip differs from the one that precedes it.”
To aid in the slow process of dilution, McMillian likes to use freshly crushed ice, preferably cracked with a bag and mallet. “The coldness and dryness of the ice at the inception of the drink is really one of the key elements of its success,” he notes. Avoid slushy ice at all costs. Fill the julep cup with the fresh ice until it extends about 10 to 20 percent beyond the rim, like a snow cone. Just don’t pack it too tightly, or there won’t be enough space for a proper pour of whiskey.
Short and Sweet
At this point you will add your whiskey (bourbon would be the standard choice), but rather than measure it, McMillian simply fills the cup to within 1/2 to 1/4 of an inch from the rim. While quantity will vary depending on the size of your cup, a standard pour into an ice-filled 10-ounce glass will be about 2 1/2 ounces. McMillian then adds the remaining simple syrup (about 1/2 to 3/4 ounce) by drizzling it over top.
“I’ve tried every method in the world over the years, but I think ultimately pouring the sweetener over top of the drink at the end and letting it trickle through the ice is probably as good a distribution as you’re going to get.” Top it off with a little bushel of mint as garnish (McMillian recommends giving it a quick slap to release more fragrant oils), serve it up with straw, and enjoy the best Mint Julep you have ever made.
Feeling inspired? Check out some playful riffs on the classic Mint Julep here.