I take my silver Julep cup, I add a small amount of simple syrup, less than a quarter of an ounce, into the bottom of the cup. I then add the mint—five, six sprigs. I don’t think you can use too much mint. I think the main danger, like I said, is the over-extraction of the mint, and the more mint you use, the less extraction it requires. So I put it in the bottom of the cup. I then gently muddle the mint against the interior of the cup, trying to cover all of the interior surface. The small amount of syrup I placed in there almost acts as an adhesive, so that as I muddle, the oil that’s being expressed combines with the sugar, which is then adhering to the interior of the glass, creating a mint-oil-and-sugar rinse, if you will. I then crush the ice and put it in the glass. Have a nice cap on it, extending maybe 10 to 20 percent above the top of the glass, even more, like a snowball or a snow cone. Because the minute you put that room-temperature alcohol on there, the ice is going to diminish in volume dramatically and rapidly.
At that point I pour my bourbon in until I get to about 1/8 of an inch to 1/4 of an inch from the top—it depends on the size of the cup, but about three to four ounces—and then I top it with simple syrup. I like to put the sugar on afterward, à la Soule Smith, so you don’t have to get to the bottom of the drink in order to get to the reward. That is, to me, one of the most compelling qualities of the Julep: Every sip is different from the first, because it’s a built drink as opposed to a homogenized drink. I don’t typically stir my Julep up. That means that as the sugar sinks to the bottom, it’s going to be much more intense in bourbon at the top, and much sweeter and more minty at the bottom. Each sip progressively takes you there and each sip is different from the one preceding it. Few drinks have that multidimensionality, building to the crescendo—which I think is the payoff of the Julep—of the bourbon and the mint together.
And then I take a large bunch of mint, slap it to release the oils and enliven the senses through the fragrance, and garnish the drink. I then take a small straw and place it right in the mint itself so that when you reach down to take a sip, you really have to nuzzle your nose in the garnish so you get that additional olfactory stimulation. You know, the more senses you involve in an experience, the more intense an experience it’s going to be. And then, traditionally, you would wrap the cup in an Irish linen napkin, so as to keep your hand warm and your cup cool.
Imbibe: How much simple syrup do you use?
CM: I kind of judge that by the individual. If I’ve served them other drinks and I see they like a little more sweetener, I might add more. If it’s somebody who’s a whiskey lover, I might use a little bit less. One of the complaints about Juleps from many people is that they’re often oversweetened. We can probably say three-quarters of an ounce or an ounce total. You’re looking for a little more sweetness as opposed to less, but the bourbon itself is a naturally sweet spirit. I guess it’s intuitive, at some level. You know, I’m a regular measurer in cocktails. I’m a great believer that if you want a drink to taste the same every time, you have to make it the same every time. And yet the Julep is one of the drinks that I do not measure, because of the nature of the quantity of whiskey and the intensity of flavor; you really have to tailor that to the tastes of the individual you’re serving. But if I were writing Chris McMillian’s recipe, I would say somewhere around an ounce. From time to time, I will vary the simple syrup I use. One of my favorite variations is peach syrup. Bourbon and peaches are a naturally complementary pairing—that’s the basis for Southern Comfort. It adds just another subtle flavor dimension on a classic combination. And in fact, peach brandy was one of the most common base materials for the Julep during the 19th century.