When he's not busy running the cocktail program at New York City's Maialino, Erik Lombardo is giving us the rundown on all things spirits -- and showing us the best ways to drink them.
Today: This spring, drink up to cool down -- it is officially time for mint juleps.
The origins of alcohol are medicinal. When water was unsafe to drink, one drank wine, beer, or cider. Medicinal herbs steeped in alcohol were made even more potent and easy to administer, and brandy was used to calm an overactive nervous system centuries before Valium was a twinkle in Leo Sternbach’s eye.
It’s no surprise, then, that the word for one of the best cocktails you can drink when the mercury climbs north of 70 degrees is culled directly from a 10th-century Persian medical text. Julep is the anglicized translation of gulab, the Persian word for rose water. Originally, the ancient julep was little more than flowers macerated with sugar and water, consumed as a tonic to benefit general health. In the 15th century the word julep was used with increasing regularity to mean medicine; and in the glorious 18th century, the julep attained -- in a typical American fashion -- a meaning both very different from and slyly related to its origin as medicine.
By the turn of the 19th century, the only thing a Julep cured was overheating and a marked lack of intoxication. And at least with the former, it had the right idea: In the time long before air conditioning, the julep was the quickest way to cool down short of dunking your head in a horse trough.
More: Stay cool -- all summer long -- with these other mint cocktails.
For spirit, bourbon is the choice par excellence, but the original was made with anything from rum (Jamaican, please) to brandy. In fact, if you can find real peach brandy, that is, a spirit distilled from fermented peaches and aged in wood barrels (not a sweetened cordial), a julep made from a combination of that and either bourbon or brandy is an absolute knockout. It’s tough to find nowadays, but not impossible.
Execution couldn’t be simpler: Combine the ingredients in a fancy-schmancy julep cup if you have it, a cheater tin if you don’t, or a double old fashioned glass if you must. Fill with crushed ice and stir until ice forms on the outside -- with all that crushed ice it won’t take long. Ice out of an ice crusher is fine, but even better is ice crushed in a canvas bag with a wooden mallet -- or, for the budget-minded, a kitchen towel with a rolling pin. (This ice takes on more of a snowy consistency and is absolutely beautiful.) Once the ice has formed on the outside of the vessel, top with additional ice into a cone and add an irresponsible (again, don’t be cheap) amount of fresh mint tops. Trim a straw down so that you have to bury your nose in mint to drink, and sip slowly in the sun so you don’t catch hypothermia.
3 ounces bourbon
3/4 ounce rich mint syrup, or to taste
1 bunch mint
Photos by James Ransom