What’s minty, boozy and not a mojito? The mint julep, and Toronto’s digging it

Toronto’s mean midsummer heat wave bares sparse semblance to the first, sweet-breezed weekend in May that heralds the arrival of spring and, south of the border, gives way to the famous Kentucky Derby. But there’s no reason why we can’t inwardly escape to the Bluegrass State by wrapping our sweaty paws around a tall, frosty cup of minted bourbon.

Sound questionably appealing? Let me persuade you to reconsider: the mint julep may just be one of the simplest, and most surprisingly delectable, drinks you’ve never tried.

According to Tales of the Cocktail, New Orleans’ annual drink symposium which took place last weekend, the skeletal origins of the mint julep date back to the Persian Empire, where health tonics called gulabs were distilled from rose petals. As the popularity of herbal distillations spread to Mediterranean regions, rose-based tinctures were replaced with indigenous and plentiful mint.

By the 1800s, mint and spirit combinations were being downed in the Americas as breakfast pick-me-ups, rousing groggy southeastern farmers in the wee morning hours and making their arduous days that much more bearable. And seriously, who needs caffeine when a spot of mint and whisky does the trick?

Around 1875, fine Kentucky bourbon was solidified as the spirit of choice for juleps, and the accelerated popularity of this Southern classic established it as the official drink of the Churchill Downs by 1938. Originally sold in souvenir cups for seventy-five cents a pop — yes, those were the days — the Kentucky Derby continues to cater to a parched crowd of julep enthusiasts, now mixing over eighty thousand of its signature cocktails over a single weekend.

Mixing a mint julep isn’t difficult by any means: in fact, it demands an adherence to simplicity. The traditional Southern recipe, according to Mittie Hellmich’s Ultimate Bar Book, calls for four ounces of good-quality bourbon, a teaspoon of simple syrup and six mint sprigs over crushed ice, served in a silver (or pewter, if you’re feeling decadent) julep cup. Exactly how mint assimilates into the cocktail is still a subject of debate, with purists insisting that it be used only as an aromatic garnish, while others prefer to marry the caramelized woodiness of American whisky with the soft bite of fresh mint by carefully bruising the leaves with sugar.

When mixing a julep, don’t shirk on bourbon — as with any stiff cocktail, a premium brand of spirit makes all the difference. Try Maker’s Mark 46 ($49.95), Woodford Reserve Distiller’s Select ($46.95), or Elijah Craig 12 Year Old Kentucky Straight Bourbon ($39.95), all available at the LCBO, for a stellar whisky slushy. If you want to get authentic about it, abandon high ball glasses for your very own julep cup, soon to be available at Queen West’s Cocktail Emporium ($50 for a set of four). Alternatively, sip a julep at Ossington’s The Dakota Tavern ($8), or tackle a Mint Julep Martini ($9) at Southern Accent in the Annex.

Cocktail Emporium, 972 Queen Street West, 647-727-3600; The Dakota Tavern, 249 Ossington Ave., 416-850-4579; Southern Accent,595 Markham St., 416-536-3548

Article exclusive to STREETS OF TORONTO