Two of the world’s most famous cocktails, the storied mint julep and fun-loving margarita, take center stage this weekend in back-to-back celebrations of horse racing and Mexican heritage.
What: Broadcast of the Kentucky DerbyWhen: 6:24 p.m. Saturday locally on WCBD (NBC)
On one level, these two drinks couldn’t be more different. Brown, caramelly bourbon is the basis for the mint julep, and clear-to-amber, often biting tequila for the margarita. One is minty-sweet, the other tart-sweet.
Libations’ origins, places in history
The mint julepMint juleps began as the Arabic drink “julab,” or water and rose petals.Early Virginians added spirits, brandy or rum, in the late 1700s and mint soon after the turn of the century. (However, some say mint replaced rose petals much earlier in the Mediterranean.) Over time, local whiskey, then bourbon, became the spirit of choice. The mint julep also became a potent symbol of Southern hospitality.The Kentucky Derby adopted the mint julep beginning in 1938, the first time the drink was served at Churchill Downs in a glass marked “Kentucky Derby.” People kept those glasses as souvenirs and the tradition was born.A longstanding debate is whether to muddle or not to muddle. (We vote for muddling.) Whichever, the best herb is a bright spearmint. The “Kentucky Colonel” variety is perfect for the job. Best of all, it’s a cinch to grow your own.The margaritaIt’s likely no one did more to popularize the margarita than singer-songwriter Jimmy Buffett, whose 1977 hit, “Margaritaville,” remains an endearing ode to the aimless.The actual “inventor” of the margarita is elusive. One story traces the drink to Tijuana, Mexico, and a racetrack bar in 1930. Another to Bertha’s Bar in Taxco, Mexico; and others to south-of-the-border watering holes in Puebla, Juarez, Ensenada and so on. Some claim the drink was named for a woman named Margarita or Marjorie, and even American singer Peggy (Margaret) Lee. Another theory is that the margarita is a remake of an older American drink called the Daisy, with tequila instead of brandy. Margarita is Spanish for Daisy.Teresa Taylor
Yet they have common ground (besides the leadoff letter “M”). Both are seemingly simple potations to make yet have subtle complexities. Also, few cocktails are so closely associated with a certain day of the year: the Kentucky Derby on Saturday and Cinco de Mayo (the fifth of May) on Sunday.
To get in the spirit (pun intended), we talked to local bartenders about classic versions of both drinks as well as those with a twist or spin.
A classic act
The search for knowledge about a traditional mint julep led to, where else? The Thoroughbred Club inside Charleston Place hotel.
Bartender Jerry Massey says that while mint juleps are not the lounge’s signature drink, “We do make quite a few of them.”
Among the most curious are people from outside the South. As he forewarns, a mint julep is a stiff drink. “The name is deceiving, like it’s an iced tea,” he says.
The ingredients are few and the technique simple, but Massey says both make a difference.
For starters, his choice of bourbon is Woodford Reserve. “It’s has just the right mix of the sweetness for a mint julep.
The simple syrup is just that: one part sugar and one part water, mixed together until the sugar dissolves. (Hot water or boiling together aids the dissolving.) Make as much as you like; likely there will be some left over, which can be stored in the refrigerator for later use. “It’s wonderful for sweetening tea,” Massey points out.
Use restraint when muddling the mint, Massey says. “You just want to bruise ... just enough to bring out those minty oils. You don’t want to masticate it and turn it into creamed spinach.”
The role of the crushed ice is very important, he says. It adds just enough water to cut the full force of the bourbon. The ice can be crushed in a blender, but lacking that, wrap ice well in a sturdy hand towel and use a muddler or other blunt object to smash it.
Classic Mint Julep
Makes 1 drink
4 sprigs mint, preferably spearmint; reserve one for garnish
1/2 ounce simple syrup
11/2 ounces bourbon
Sprig of mint for garnish
Place mint in a rocks glass or julep cup. Use a muddler to slightly bruise the mint.
Pour simple syrup over the mint. Fill the glass with crushed ice. Pour the bourbon in and stir lightly to melt some of the ice. Top off with more crushed ice. Garnish with a sprig of mint.
Morgan’s Perfect Margarita
Makes 1 drink
At the new Mex 1 Coastal Cantina west of the Ashley, bar manager Morgan Hurley says the most important factor in a good margarita is the quality of the tequila. It should be no less than 100 percent agave, distilled from the blue agave succulent plant indigenous to Mexico.
“It doesn’t have the bite of a ‘mixto’ tequila (meaning mixed, a minimum of 51 percent agave with other sugars), and it provides less of a hangover.”
(Want to know all about tequila? Hurley recommends visiting the website titled “In search of the blue agave” at www.ianchadwick.com/tequila.)
Second, a margarita’s balance is critical, he says. That means the proper proportion of tequila with the citrus juices and the sweetener, like agave nectar or simple syrup.
11/2 ounces 100 percent agave “reposado” tequila (see note)
1 ounce freshly squeezed lime juice
1 ounce agave nectar
1/2 ounce Cointreau or another orange liqueur
Note: Reposado tequila is a mellower one, aged between two months and a year.
Also, if desired, wet the rim of the glass and dip it into kosher salt before pouring drink. Also, keep limes at room temperature (or put in a bowl of warm water if refrigerated) to get more juice from them. Press and roll across countertop before cutting.
Combine ingredients and shake with ice, then strain over fresh ice in a tall Collins glass.
Go for a spin
For a mint julep with a spin, we turned to Jackson Holland of The Cocktail Club on Upper King Street. Here’s why:
“A mint julep is a delicious classic, but a true classic julep may be too strong for some people,” he says. “The chocolate takes some of the bite away.”
Holland favors Buffalo Trace bourbon “because it is really well-rounded and not too ‘hot’ (high proof). This infuses with the vanilla (bean) very nicely in 24-48 hours.”
Three Strides Before the Wire
Makes 1 drink
21/2 ounces vanilla-infused bourbon
3/4 ounce chocolate mint simple syrup (see note)
Splash of Marie Brizard Chocolate Royale liqueur
Chocolate mint sprigs for syrup and garnish
Shaved chocolate for garnish
Note: A simple syrup may be made with 1 cup sugar and 1 cup water. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer and stir until sugar dissolves. Take off heat and cool to room temperature. Refrigerate, tightly covered, up to a month.
To make chocolate mint simple syrup, add one bunch of chocolate mint to syrup while still warm. Puree and strain.
Add bourbon and simple syrup to a cocktail shaker with ice. Stir quickly and thoroughly. Double strain into a silver julep cup filled with crushed ice. Float splash of Marie Brizard Chocolate Royale on top. Garnish with a chocolate mint sprig and shaved chocolate.
With a pineapple twist
We visited Taco Boy on Huger Street to check out a margarita with a twist. There, we found a house specialty margarita made with pineapple-infused tequila.
Bartender Jessica Youngblood couldn’t give out the exact recipe — for one reason, Taco Boy makes its own sour mix — but she did describe it generally.
It starts with the infusion process (see the big glass jar sitting on the bar top). An entire pineapple cut into large chunks is submerged into the tequila, along with three vanilla beans and three cinnamon sticks. There it stays for a week before being strained and bottled. Also going into the margarita is a housemade sour mix of orange and lime juices and simple syrup.