Writing about cocktails in May is always a toss-up, what with its two strongly drinking-associated "holidays" – Cinco de Mayo margaritas or Kentucky Derby mint juleps? My personal choice would be the former, but I've already remixed the margarita, so I figured this year I'd jump in on the julep.
It's just never been a drink that intrigued me; I find the white sugar and mint kind of cloying atop the bourbon. Nor have I been a fan of Derby parties, nor do I have servants to polish the silver cups – nor a set of silver cups. So the mint julep has languished in some sort of Southern Living drawer in the back of my mind, full of big fancy hats and guys dressed like the KFC colonel with Foghorn Leghorn voices. Once I decided to remix it, I needed to think of ways to tone down the drink's shrill sweetness (and shed the plantation-chic associations).
First, substituting smoky sage for the high, thin note of mint brought the bourbon into a more interesting, less dessert-y flavor arena.
Next, though there's no citrus in the original, I thought some Meyer lemon juice might give the sweetness a more rounded dimension. Meyer lemons are a cross between a mandarin orange and the larger, more acidic lemons usually found in your produce section, resulting in a darker, sweeter, smaller citrus fruit that's definitely worth your time. They're almost sweet enough to eat out of hand, while still bringing a sparkly acidity to a dish (or drink). I also used turbinado sugar rather than plain old white.
But I did manage to dig up a silver julep cup, and I stuck with the crushed ice and straw. Some traditions are OK to hold on to. But let's skip the hats.
fresh mint leaves
1 teaspoon sugar
3 ounces bourbon
silver julep cup, chilled
Place five or six mint leaves in the bottom of a chilled silver tumbler. Add sugar and crush them together with a muddler. Add crushed ice so that cup is three-quarters full, then pour in the bourbon. Stir briskly until the outside of the cup frosts. Pack with more ice and garnish with a sprig of mint. Serve with a straw.
fresh sage leaves
1 tablespoon fresh-squeezed Meyer lemon juice
1 teaspoon turbinado sugar
3 ounces bourbon
Place four torn sage leaves and the sugar in a chilled julep cup or glass. Muddle, then add lemon juice, bourbon and some crushed ice. Swirl until the glass frosts over. Pack with more crushed ice, garnish with a lightly bruised sprig of sage and serve with a short straw.