Drink of the Week pre-5/5 special, part 2: the Mint Julep

the Mint Julep

We conclude our May 4, 2012 doubleheader with one of the most legendary of all cocktails and the ultimate Derby Day tradition. It’s also a drink, I’m ashamed to admit, I’ve only tried for myself in the last couple of weeks.

According to such experts as New Orleans bartender Chris MacMillian, the Mint Julep was to the 19th century what the Martini was to the 20th. As MacMillians also reminds us, this super classic drink’s roots actually go back far further — juleps were eulogized in 1634 by “Paradise Lost” poet John Milton in his “Comus,” which some of us old English majors have actually read, even if we don’t remember a word of it. Today, the bourbon, sugar and mint concoction is primarily associated with Southern belles and gents in old movies seeking a cool libation on a powerful hot day, not to mention the ultra-famed horse race which will once again be run tomorrow afternoon.

As I heard from numerous sources, however, the actual juleps served in recent years at the home of the Kentucky Derby have been anything but satisfying. If word on the cocktail street is correct, Churchill Downs has fallen prey to the #1 enemy of good cocktails — a pre-mix! Tragic, perhaps but also almost understandable given the enormous crowds who arrive each year for Derby Day. In any case, if you want a really good Mint Julep, you’ll have to go a high quality bar with a decent mixologist in residence or, of course, you may make one yourself.

The Mint Julep

2.5-3 ounces bourbon whiskey
1/2 ounce simple syrup or 1 tablespoon sugar and a splash of water
About 5-8 fresh mint leaves
Lots of ice — preferably crushed.

Combine mint leaves, simple syrup or sugar (preferably superfine or powdered) and water in a rocks/old fashioned glass or, if you have one (I don’t) a traditional metal julep glass. Gently muddle the mixture, being careful not to overdo it as, we are warned, over-muddling mint can release some displeasing bitterness. Fill up your glass with ice, add the bourbon of your choice, and stir. Toast your favorite racehorse and sip slowly.

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There’s no doubt about it, I’m a piker when it comes to the Mint Julep. I’ve made a few decent versions of it but I don’t own the special sack — called a Lewis bag — or the mallet needed for making the crushed ice fine enough to make the julep a sort of highly alcoholic snow cone and I also don’t own a blender. Even so, this drink works fine with lots of ordinary ice, particularly if you’re a bourbon lover, as I am. I made some very good versions of it using the remainder of my Angel’s Envy — I still had some left over from my exploration of the Chicago Sour — but I had  good luck as well using some very inexpensive yet sweeter and highly drinkable Evan Williams brew. I’m sure Maker’s Mark or really any brand of bourbon you like a lot would work delightfully.

The only problems I encountered were when I tried to dial back the sweetness. None other than James Bond in “Goldfinger” ordered his drink tart. When I tried it that way, the flavors simply didn’t come together. Just because you own a license to kill and save the world once a year doesn’t mean you know everything.

Of course, I don’t know everything either. Something tells me the drink, as prepared a bit differently from me by Chris MacMillian himself below, was really something.

  

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Drink of the Week: The Chicago Sour

The Chicago SourI’ve confessed here before to the fact that even a pretty well made classic whiskey sour is not exactly my favorite concoction. Still, I’m starting to think that maybe the fault is with the particular recipes I’ve been sampling and that it is possible to make an entirely delightful standard whiskey sour…or maybe you need a little something extra. That’s the approach of this really kind of beautiful creation crafted for the high end bourbon, Angel’s Envy, by noted bartender Freddie Sarkis of Chicago gastropub Sable Kitchen and Bar.

As I noted in an earlier post, Angel’s Envy is bourbon for serious bourbon lovers that is finished in port wine caskets, and the fact that they sent me a free bottle hardly influences my opinion at all! This creation, which uses just a bit of plain old red wine, instead of the port featured in other Angel’s Envy recipes, is also delicious enough to make me forget the fact that I took myself off red wine several years back. It’s really, really good.

The Chicago Sour

2 ounces Angel’s Envy bourbon
3/4 ounce fresh lemon juice
3/4 ounce simple syrup
1 egg white
Red wine

Combine bourbon, lemon juice, egg white and simple syrup in cocktail shaker. Before adding ice, shake the contents vigorously to fully emulsify the egg white. Make sure your shaker is well sealed because egg tends to make plastic cocktail shakers want to pop open for some reason that a chemist or physicist could probably explain. Now add ice and shake again even more vigorously. Strain into a chilled cocktail/martini/champagne glass. “Float” — which I think means “lightly pour” — a very small amount of red table wine. Drink and toast Mr. Sarkis, who has come up with one mean cocktail.

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The Chicago Sour made with Angel's EnvyThe recipe as promoted by Angel’s Envy doesn’t specify the type of red wine or the size of the egg — I used the white of a medium egg because medium eggs were on sale at my local supermarket a few days before along with an extremely cheap Cabernet that’s probably slightly below the quality of ordinary two buck Chuck and and exactly the same price. The result, nevertheless, was pretty magnificent. (Please note the usual raw egg caveats apply — the risk of contamination is very low, but people with certain health issues should use pasteurized eggs.)

Regular readers will also note that I departed from my prior habit of using superfine sugar and water in preference to simple syrup because I’m feeling lazy and I found some for an acceptable price that was actually made with cane sugar. Still, I imagine you could substitute about a tablespoon of sugar and 1/2 an ounce of water and it would likely come out as tasty as anything else from our nation’s former second city, as saluted below by two Italian-American lounge singers of some note.

  

Drink of the Week: The Angel’s Decree

the Angel's DecreeDespite the fact that many U.S. denominations frown on booze or ban it outright, it’s nevertheless no surprise that Christian imagery has found its way into the argot of whiskey distillers based in some of the most devout regions on the planet. “The Angel’s share” refers to a certain small percentage of whiskey that seeps into the wood in barrels and usually evaporates.

It’s become a minor trend to refer to this phenomenon. A bourbon fancier’s magazine is named for it, Jim Beam has found a way to extract the bourbon back out of the wood and perversely named it the Devil’s Cut. Meanwhile, famed bourbon distiller Lincoln Henderson, previously associated with the fine brands Old Forester and Woodford Reserve, has crafted a Kentucky straight bourbon he calls the Angel’s Envy.

The booze press has been very kind to this bourbon and for good reason. It’s designed for the serious whiskey lover and is described as being ultra small-batch and super premium. By intelligent design, it’s not as smooth as some products but it mostly justifies its large, but not enormous, price (about $45.00 in most places) by being plenty flavorful. It makes for an excellent Manhattan, quite a sturdy Old Fashioned, and I imagine it would work equally well in most classic bourbon cocktails. It’s also excellent with just a little bit of soda water.

Still, there’s always room for innovation. Henderson and his colleagues finish their product in casks previously used for port, and there is a hint of the richness of the dessert wine in the whiskey’s flavor. Logically enough, port is a significant ingredient in a number of recipes they’ve developed, including the one below that’s pretty ideal for the unseasonably warm weather going on in parts of the Midwest, even if it’s actually a bit cooler than usual here in sunny So Cal. In any case, this beverage is a nice one and simple enough for any soul.

The Angel’s Decree

1 1/2 ounces Angel’s Envy bourbon
1/2 ounce port
1-2 dashes aromatic bitters
ginger ale

Combine bourbon, port, and bitters in a smallish Tom Collins glass with ice cubes and stir. Top off with ginger ale…it’s more interesting if you don’t stir it again at this point. Sip and ask for divine guidance on whether or not your soul will be safe if you try this very tasty concoction with another brand of bourbon.

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I really like the Angel’s Decree but, at the risk of sounding as if I’m in a state of heretical despair, I’m not sure it loves me. My issues with all true red wines — they make me feel, if I may use a technical term, icky — are what drove me to explore cocktails in the first place. Port is easily my favorite kind of red wine but, as I learned again this week, it’s still red and even in very small doses for me leads to feelings that are short of heavenly. That, however, should not stop you from enjoying the drink.

The good news for me is that the sweet vermouth you use in a Manhattan only looks red. (The color is mostly from the caramel used to give it’s sweetness.) I think that’s how I’ll largely be taking my Angel’s Envy. Regardless, I trust no celestial being will be in hot pursuit of my footwear as a result.

  

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