A vessel bearing a julep wants to be frosty cold to the touch, so it's essential to offer your guests napkins. Cloth napkins are better for the environment—and, more importantly, your social status—than paper. Linen dabs nicely at the eyes of debutantes indulging irrational crying jags beneath their hat brims.
Flexi-straws are extra-nifty, but this is not a day for those. If there are to be straws, then all shall draw short ones and nuzzle garnishes of mint leaves with appreciative noses.
CRUSHING THE ICE
The ice must be crushed, cracked, shaved, rasped, pounded, pebbled, shattered, otherwise reduced to rubble. You can complete this task with a machine or with a muddler, but my favorite technique involves walking into a bar and politely ordering them to do it.
The most emotionally satisfying method involves clubbing the hell out of your ice with a blunt object while it's inside a Lewis bag, the canvas lining of which wicks away moisture and keeps your ice dry.
Different techniques will yield different textures. For instance, Outing magazine—a lifestyle monthly that was perhaps the Details of the 1880s—believed the ice should achieve the texture of hail. Consequently, its editors recommended a very specific approach: Wrap the ice in "a stout towel” and strike “a few blows against a brick wall." Caveat wall-whacker.
SWEETENING THE DEAL
Some bourbon from stills within shouting distances, some mint leaves from a shady bank of a lazy creek, some water from the dew on the leaves of the mint—the old-school mint julep was mostly a locavore production, yes, but they imported the sugar at significant cost. We are dealing in tradition here, and the gesture is essential. The first thing to put in your julep cup is just a touch of sugar—a pinch of granulated stuff or a dash of simple syrup, maybe just a quarter ounce of sugar for every two ounces of bourbon. Steep some mint in your simple syrup if you like, but know that in so doing you risk bitterness.
SELECTING YOUR LIQUOR
There is no one correct bourbon for julep-making, but I make mine with Virginia Gentleman, partly because it is light and spicy, partly because it is fun to antagonize Kentuckians. To call for Virginia Gentleman is to remind your inferiors that the old Bourbon County—land that now represents a huge swath of Kentucky—once was a unit of Virginia, and that Kentucky as a whole has not amounted to much in the centuries since it separated from the Old Dominion.
Make your julep with any kind of bourbon, any kind of whiskey, any decent liquor at all. Brandy juleps are specially mellow, and you should try one sometime, garnished with a fancy cherry.
One way to celebrate the first Saturday of May in 2012 (and 2018 and 2029 and 2035 and …) is to look to another lost empire. Whenever the Derby is coincident with Cinco de Mayo, whip up a julep that substitutes a reposado tequila for bourbon and agave nectar for simple syrup. Maybe float a little mezcal on top for the sake of the smoke. Risk getting fanciful with the fruit garnishes, like a frivolous gringo on holiday.
If you frequent the kind of bobo saloons depicted on Portlandia and the like, then simply repeat the above paragraph—which is the one authentic recipe for "Slate's Postcolonial Tequila Julep"—to your suspender-clad mixologist. He'll know what to do. Tip generously; that moustache wax ain't cheap.
STIRRING TO FROST
As noted above, a vessel bearing a julep wants to be frosty cold to the touch. How is this best accomplished? I suggest asking a Yankee. I suggest asking a Yankee because when you ask a southerner, you risking getting an answer from the sort of person who gets very mystical about the thing.
Here comes a Yankee, now. It’s Mr. Boston, of Bartender’s Guide Bostons. He tells you to pour half an ounce of simple syrup into your silver cup and then to fill it with crushed ice and to add bourbon and stir: "Stir until glass is heavily frosted, adding more ice if necessary. (Do not hold glass with hand while stirring.)"
Somewhat less direct is the wisteria-addled Lt. Gen. S.B. Buckner, Jr., whose father, later the governor of Kentucky, surrendered Fort Donelson to Ulysses S. Grant. The son once posted a letter to a chum at West Point:
By proper manipulation of the spoon, the ingredients are circulated and blended until Nature, wishing to take a further hand and add another of its beautiful phenomena, encrusts the whole in a glistening coat of white frost. Thus harmoniously blended by the deft touches of a skilled hand, you have a beverage eminently appropriate for honorable men and beautiful women.
I do declare that the gentleman writes like Foghorn Leghorn reciting Anaïs Nin. I will allow that this style represents an improvement on another florid school of julep-tribute—the kind produced by older white guys who, rhapsodizing about the mint, can get to sounding like Burl Ives playing Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
ROMANCING THE MINT
Minthe was a naiad, a water nymph stationed at a tributary to one the better rivers of hell. One night not too long ago, she saw the god Hades pass in his horse-drawn chariot, and she admired his powerful form. Hades was totally hitting that until his wife, Persephone, blocking on the Cocytus, turned Minthe into a plant.
Julepists get especially weird about their spearmint leaves, their Mentha spicata. A hardline faction largely comprising morons insists that the mint be brutally abused with a muddler. Others more sensibly say “smash” or “crush lightly.” Others yet fetishically discuss “pressing” or “slapping” or “clapping” or “smacking” or “bruising” the mint to awaken its oils. Perverts.
Tell these well-meaning people not to knock themselves out for your sake. Given the option, ask your host merely to garnish your drink with one groomed sprig of new mint leaves. When you’re done with the drink, chew a couple of the leaves, which will do something to mitigate the fact that you reek of bourbon. Wear the sprig on your lapel, if you are so moved, and if your buttonhole doesn’t have better plans. Do what you will. Bring out the nymph.