This Shabbos afternoon, at Churchill Downs, in Louisville, Ky., more than 100,000 spectators will crowd into the stands to watch 20 thoroughbred horses run a 1¼ mile race—it will be the 141st running of the Kentucky Derby. The Derby has many traditions associated with it, from clothing to cocktails; the cocktail of choice being the mint julep, and during the weekend Churchill Downs will sell an estimated 120,000 of them.
While today, a mint julep is “the” drink to serve on Derby Weekend, it’s rarely served at any other time. However, during the century or so before prohibition, the julep was, perhaps, America’s favorite summertime tipple.
Juleps are a mixture of spirits, mint, sugar, and ice. In 19th-century julep recipes, cognac (sometimes mixed peach brandy, or rum) was the spirit of choice, but modern-day Julep recipes (including Churchill Downs’s recipe) almost always call for bourbon. This is unfortunate, because mint does not seem to marry quite as well with bourbon as it does with other spirits. One of my favorite julep recipes, which happens to found in the world’s first cocktail guide, Jerry Thomas’s 1862 book, How to Mix Drinks, or the Bon-Vivant’s Companion, is actually for a gin julep.
Below is the recipe for a gin julep, plus recipes for three of its more modern gin-and-mint descendants, any of which would make for delightful drinking during Derby Weekend.
The Gin Julep
This recipe is based closely on Thomas’s 1862 recipe, although I’ve cut down the proportions a bit (the original called for 3 ounces of gin) and reduced the ratio of sugar to gin. In Thomas’s day he would have made the drink with genever, a type of Dutch gin that is again becoming more readily available in the US. Genever differs greatly in style from today’s more popular “London dry” gins. Genever is a malty, slightly sweet, fuller-bodied spirit (imagine something like a cross between London dry gin and Irish whiskey), and in a gin julep both genever’s maltiness and its juniper flavor really marry well with the mint.
1/4 cup of genever (Bols would be a good choice. If you can’t find any genever at your liquor store, you can make a poor approximation of it by substituting 2 tbsp. plus 1 tsp. of Plymouth Gin mixed with 1 tbsp. plus 2 tbsp. of Jameson’s Irish Whiskey.)
5 sprigs of mint
1-2 tbsp. of room-temperature water
1 1/2 tsp. of superfine sugar
Add the sugar, water, and the leaves from three sprigs of mint to an 8–10 ounce tumbler. Thoroughly muddle the mint with a wooden muddler (or, in a pinch, with a wooden mixing spoon) and stir until the sugar is dissolved. Pour in the genever, stir well, and fill the glass with crushed ice. Garnish with the two remaining sprigs of mint, and serve with a straw.
The Southside Cocktail
Subtle yet refreshing, this cocktail was named for the long-defunct Southside Sportsmen’s Club of Long Island, where the drink was invented in the early 20th century. The club—whose membership roll included names like August Belmont, William K. Vanderbilt, Charles Louis Tiffany, U.S. Grant, Teddy Roosevelt, Andrew Carnegie, and Adlai Stevenson—was known for its mint juleps, which eventually evolved into the Southside Cocktail, a refreshing mixture of London Dry Gin, lemon juice, sugar, and mint. The following is adapted from a recipe in Harry Craddock’s 1930 Savoy Cocktail Book.
1/4 cup of London Dry Gin (Tanqueray, Boodles, and Brokers would all be good choices)
1 1/2 tsp. of superfine sugar
1 tbsp. of freshly squeezed lemon juice
The leaves from two sprigs of mint
Add the sugar, lemon juice, and mint to the tin of a cocktail shaker, and muddle well with a wooden muddler (or, in a pinch, with a wooden mixing spoon) until the sugar is dissolved. Fill the shaker with ice, add the gin, put on the shaker top, and shake well. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Float a mint leaf on top as a garnish.
The Eastside Cocktail
A modern variant of the Southside, this is a cocktail that I am particularly fond of drinking during the summer months. It is made the same as the Southside, except that a slice or two of cucumber is muddled with the sugar, mint, and lemon juice. Garnish with a slice of cucumber.
The French Pearl
This supple potation was invented by Audrey Saunders, the proprietor of New York City’s Pegu Club, and one of the best cocktail bartenders in the business. As with the Southside, it’s a mixture of gin, mint, citrus, and sugar, but Saunders adds a bit of Pernod, which gives the cocktail a more nuanced flavor. The following is based on a recipe from Audrey Saunders.
1/4 cup of Plymouth Gin
4 1/2 tsp. of freshly squeezed lime juice
2 tbsp.of simple syrup (To make simple syrup mix equal parts sugar—I like to use turbinado sugar—and water in a saucepan and stir over a low flame until dissolved. Keep refrigerated.)
1 1/2 tsp. of Pernod
The leaves from a sprig of mint
Add the syrup, lime juice, and mint to the tin of a cocktail shaker, and muddle well with a wooden muddler (or, in a pinch, with a wooden mixing spoon). Fill the shaker with ice, add the gin and Pernod, put on the shaker top, and shake well. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass.
By Gamliel Kronemer