With this julep, stirring is out

SIPS

Sugar water and bourbon form firm layers of just fine flavor

May 01, 2002|By Sara Engram | Sara Engram,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

When the horses set foot on the track for the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs this Saturday, every self-respecting Derby fan should have a julep to raise high for the singing of My Old Kentucky Home.

That's julep as in mint julep, the Derby's official drink and pride of all Kentucky. Many Kentuckians will happily give you the key to the absolutely perfect julep, which likely has a twist different from the next absolutely best julep.

With mint juleps, as with many things in life, there's room for personal preference - within reason, of course.

Reason would dictate a few essentials - fresh mint, sugar water prepared ahead, crushed ice and good, smooth bourbon - Maker's Mark is a favorite for this drink.

One more thing: It should be served in a short, silver mint-julep cup, although Churchill Downs will be serving the drink in the traditional commemorative glass listing all previous Derby winners.

Beyond those basics, mint juleps are as much a procedure as a recipe. Bourbon is not my spirit of choice, but like many Derby fans, I like to get into the spirit of the day. So I took careful notes recently when I came across a new twist on the classic mint julep, courtesy of a Louisville native who has spent three decades perfecting her technique.

The biggest difference between this julep and the usual one is that this one isn't stirred. Rather, the sugar water and bourbon are allowed to remain in separate layers, with the heavier sugar water hugging the bottom of the cup while the bourbon floats on top.

Until enough ice melts to make the question moot, sippers can move their straws up for a taste of almost-straight bourbon, then all the way down for a shot of sugar water, or find a meeting place that combines the two in the most pleasing combination.

I tried this technique and, by golly, it makes for a memorable drink.

My julep mentor calls it a "layered" julep, one that allows you to drink it your own way, or different ways at different moments. This works fine for the first several sips, at least. But as the ice melts, it won't matter where your straw is; all that sweet liquid will merge anyway.

There are, of course, a few other twists that make this julep work especially well.

It's important to begin the day before, with fresh mint from the garden. This julep uses spearmint, although some aficionados will swear by other varieties.

The day before Derby day, pick the leaves off a bunch of fresh mint. Add them to sugar water - one part sugar to one part water - then muddle, or bruise, the leaves to release the essential oils. Refrigerate the mixture overnight.

Many julep recipes call for boiling the sugar water until the sugar dissolves completely. My mentor skips this, because she uses superfine sugar that dissolves more easily than the granulated kind.

On julep day, remove the leaves from the sugar water so they won't clog up your straw. Then pick more mint. You'll want fresh mint sprigs, trimmed to rise an inch or two above the rim of the cup so they can tingle and tantalize your nose while you sip.

Trim plastic straws to the same height as the mint. Gather the sugar water and a good supply of crushed ice. Open the bourbon bottle, and you're ready to go.

At serving time, put 2 to 3 tablespoons of sugar water in the bottom of the cup, letting personal preference determine the amount. Then add a straw and mint sprig before filling the cup with crushed ice. Lastly, add the bourbon. It's a good idea to ask your guests to watch this part so they will understand this isn't any ordinary drink.

A good julep can have as much as 3 to 4 ounces of bourbon - so sipping should be slow.

And don't forget - do not stir!

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