Dust off your outside furniture—patio season is here. The weather is warmer, the days longer, and weekend get togethers migrate from dining room tables to outdoor decks. To help you get into the open-air state of mind, we asked Thumbtack pro Ian McCarthy of the San Francisco-based bartending duo Sharpshooter to walk us through how to make a classic warm weather drink: the Mint Julep. Read on for must-have tips on mixing this crowd-pleasing classic for your guests this season.
Let’s start basic: What’s a Julep?
I’ll take you a step further—what is a cocktail? A lot of people don’t know that cocktails are actually a uniquely American drink. Around the early 19th century, Americans started mixing different kinds of spirits with sugar water and bitters, and those combinations became what we now call cocktails.
According to written record, the Julep was first mixed in 1784 (around 50 years before the word “cocktail” became popularized) so like a lot of early drinks, it’s incredibly simple. It’s a spirit-first drink that’s made using bourbon—a Kentucky export—so it’s about as patriotic as they come.
What time of year are Mint Juleps most popular?
Juleps, in general, are a southern drink and they tend to get really popular in the spring and summer, when it’s hot. It’s a Derby drink. The core of the recipe is mint and a mound of crushed ice—it’s meant to stay really, really cold no matter how sweltering it gets in the stands.
Are all Juleps served in a silver cup?
Traditionally, the silver cup was a sign of prestige. These days, serving juleps in a metal vessel is less about showing your affluence than observing that tradition. People also love metal cups. When the drink is cold, the cup gets wrapped in a patina of frost, and when it’s hot outside I can’t understate how good that looks.
I have found that, quite like the recipe, the metal cup is non-negotiable. People are very loyal to the Julep as it is and they don’t want you to fuss with what it’s served in either.
What goes into making a Mint Julep?
Like most classic mixed drinks, Juleps have only four ingredients: bourbon, ice, sugar, and mint. Because the ingredients are so simple, it doesn’t leave a lot of room for interpretation—add a drop of lemon juice and you’ve got a whole new cocktail.
The bourbon: Bourbon is kind of whiskey that’s aged in American Oak, giving it a strong vanilla sweetness that makes it easy to mix. It doesn’t have that same intense, briny quality as whiskey from places like Scotland so it tends to be much easier to use.
The mint: The mint is really the heart of the Mint Julep. It adds a bit of a bite to help temper the mutual sweetness of the bourbon and sugar. Fresh mint is essential, and in order to release the oils, you can press the leaves into the sides and bottom of the glass with a spoon.
The ice: Crushed ice takes up more surface than cubed ice, which causes more dilution and keeps the drink really cold—to get pseudo-scientific. We crush our ice by hand because it’s less expensive and it’s simple to do. Hand-crushed ice isn’t a must-have, but if you have a pillowcase and a rolling pin, it’s easy enough.
The sugar: When Julep’s were first invented, drink makers would have boiled down sugar and water to create their own simple syrup. Today, you can either batch it at home or buy a bottle in the store.
So this a totally historically accurate Mint Julep?
Very, very close. When it was first created, the Julep probably wouldn’t have been served with a straw. Straws have been around for a long time in various forms but generally classic cocktails were served without. That said, there’s a lot of ice to fight through when drinking a Julep. The straw helps.
But for the most part, both in taste and composition, this drink is about the same as would have been when it was created in the late 1700’s.
Do you have any food recommendations to go along with a Mint Julep?
It’s definitely a drink to have outdoors and during daylight hours, on a picnic or a patio. Any southerner you talk to will be offended if you tell them you drank a Julep in non-daylight hours.
To pair, think picnic fare—potato salad and fried chicken, foods that have a lot of salt to balance out the sweet.
The Definitive Mint Julep Recipe
Step 1: Put mint at the bottom of the cup (several leaves), gently pressing against the sides of the glass to release the oils.
Step 2: Add 2 oz. bourbon and ¼-½ oz. of two-to-one sugar syrup, stirring to blend.
Step 3: Scoop crushed ice into the cup until the ice displaces the liquid enough to fill the cup to the top.
Step 5: Garnish with 5-10 sprigs of fresh mint leaves on top of the ice and a straw to sip.
Ready to serve Juleps at your next summer party? Hire a bartender to help.