An excellent mint julep. Photo by Donna Turner Ruhlman

My first mint julep was made for me by a guy who remains one of my dearest friends and confidants. We were wayward, then, but he has gone on to be a talented and superlative writer, generally. Having at the time (1987) a Kentucky girlfriend and having recently spent four years at Tulane, he knew his juleps.

The night ended badly. Blown speakers at my girlfriend’s apartment and roof tar all over her nice wood floors—she was pissed, and I staggered out into the early spring sunshine. On the subway home the next morning from 110th and Amsterdam to 39th and 1st—wouldn’t you know it—I heard, “Michael?!” An old high school girlfriend had spotted me, my first kiss actually, and still dear friend. She picked lint out of my unshaved face and, with concern and disappointment, told me I needed to get some rest.

My apartment was chained shut so I had to knock. Billie Holiday was on the speakers. An unclad, unfamiliar female form crossed what I could see through the crack. My roommate, the mint julep maker, opened the door scratching his head apologetically. I told him my mother was arriving in hours, get the woman out. He told me, “She’s eating a sandwich.” I repeated my request. He paid the woman and asked her to leave. My roommate was unclear on exact details. I found gum wrappers in my sheets.

The next julep I had, several years later, was at the Oak Room, with the woman who would become my wife and has been a decidedly better influence on me. It was an August afternoon and hot, but the Oak Room was cool and dark, and Donna said, “Wouldn’t a mint julep be perfect?” We asked our server. He returned saying that the bar didn’t have any mint but surely there must be a sprig somewhere in The Plaza Hotel, and they were scouring it now. The juleps, only slightly delayed, were delivered proudly by the server. The server was duly thanked and generously tipped for his extra effort. They were perfect. Donna and I left the Oak Room, hand in hand, giddily in love.

Interesting how stories come readily attached to specific drinks.

Today, with springtime in full flush, the mint already plentiful—mint is excellent to have on hand, but it’s a weed, so be careful where you plant it—juleps will be the evening cocktail. Traditionally, a mint julep is nothing more than mint muddled with sugar, combined with bourbon and ice.

I’ve enhanced this one. I pulverize the mint in a mortar and pestle with sugar and a little of the bourbon, then add the bourbon, let it sit a few minutes to absorb the mint, then strain it over ice. Pulverizing it gives the drink extra spiciness. I then give it a squeeze of lemon to balance the sugar. I missed the Kentucky Derby this year, but I don’t have to miss the mint julep.

An Excellent Mint Julep

  • 10–12 broad leaves of mint, plus a sprig for garnish
  • 2 teaspoons sugar
  • 3 ounces Maker’s Mark (or bourbon of your choice)
  • Lemon wedge
    1. Combine the mint, sugar, and 1/2 ounce of bourbon in a mortar and pulverize it with a pestle.
    2. Add the remaining bourbon and let it rest while you ready a lowball glass with ice.
    3. Strain the bourbon over the ice (I actually strained it into a 2-cup measuring glass because my mortar and pestle is so big and heavy, then poured it over the ice). Press the mint in the strainers to squeeze as much liquid out as possible. Squeeze in some lemon juice.

Serves 1 (1 is just right, 2 is too many, 3, as I learned in New York, is never enough).


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© 2012 Michael Ruhlman. Photo © 2012 Donna Turner Ruhlman. All rights reserved.

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30 Wonderful responses to “Mint Juleps, the Good and the Bad”

  • Adam

    Just a quick question, wouldn’t the pulverizing release the chlorophyl and make the drink really bitter? I’ve always been really gentle with my mint muddling so as to only release the oils, have I been misinformed?

  • Lora in Louisville

    Michael- it is with first hand knowledge of the power of the mint julep that I raise a toast to you! Here in Louisville, we are very gentle with the mint and very particular about our bourbon of choice. When made correctly this is truly a sipping drink that can refresh for more than one race at the track, or for the entire sunset on the deck in the back yard. Cheers.

  • Desmond

    I’ve had a lot of mint juleps, and I have to say I’ve never had or seen one that unappealing shade of green. Gently muddle the leaves, man. DONT pulverize them.

  • mantonat

    Three comments in a row about how to handle the mint. I guess the phrase “I’ve enhanced this one” didn’t mean much. He even said “pulverizing it gives the drink extra spiciness.” Since the classic recipe is available virtually everywhere, I’m glad to see a slight variation. Sometimes it’s OK to take liberties, especially when you give such clear caveats beforehand. If you don’t like the extra kick of mint, by all means stick with the classic version. I like that one too, and I really enjoy a classic barman’s approach, as in this presentation by one of the greats: Chris McMillian of New Orleans.
    I ordered a julep from him several years ago and got this exact performance. Beautiful.

    • Sean Mccormac

      Mantonat, you beat me to it! Michael, I HIGHLY recommend you take a look at McMillian’s posts. They are what got me hooked on cocktails!

    • Carol Melancon

      I, too, have had the pleasure of a Mint Julep concocted for me by Master Chris McMillian while he recited the prose in the video – I teared up and got goosebumps – it was that beautiful.

      “Then comes the zenith of man’s pleasure. Then comes the julep—the mint julep. Who has not tasted one has lived in vain. The honey of Hymettus brought no such solace to the soul; the nectar of the Gods is tame beside it. It is the very dream of drinks, the vision of sweet quaffings. The Bourbon and the mint are lovers. In the same land they live, on the same food they are fostered. The mint dips its infant leaf into the same stream that makes the bourbon what it is. The corn grows in the level lands through which small streams meander. By the brook-side the mint grows. As the little wavelets pass, they glide up to kiss the feet of the growing mint, the mint bends to salute them. Gracious and kind it is, living only for the sake of others. The crushing of it only makes its sweetness more apparent. Like a woman’s heart, it gives its sweetest aroma when bruised. Among the first to greet the spring, it comes. Beside the gurgling brooks that make music in the pastures it lives and thrives.

      When the Blue Grass begins to shoot its gentle sprays toward the sun, mint comes, and its sweetest soul drinks at the crystal brook. It is virgin then. But soon it must be married to Old Bourbon. His great heart, his warmth of temperament, and that affinity which no one understands, demand the wedding. How shall it be? Take from the cold spring some water, pure as angels are; mix it with sugar until it seems like oil. Then take a glass and crush you mint within it with a spoon—crush it around the borders of the glass and leave no place untouched. Then throw the mint away—it is a sacrifice.

      Fill with cracked ice the glass; pour in the quantity of Bourbon which you want. It trickles slowly through the ice. Let it have time to cool, then pour your sugared water over it. No spoon is needed, no stirring is allowed—just let it stand a moment. Then around the brim place sprigs of mint, so that the one who drinks may find a taste and odor at one draught.
      When it is made, sip it slowly. August suns are shining, the breath of the south wind is upon you. It is fragrant, cold and sweet—it is seductive. No maiden’s touch could be more passionate. Sip it and dream, it is a dream itself. No other land can give so sweet a solace for your cares; no other liquor soothes you so in melancholy days. Sip it and say there is no solace for the soul, no tonic for the body like Old Bourbon whiskey.”

      Sip it and dream…

  • Peter

    If you’re really into mint juleps, it’s pretty easy to have a mint flavored simple syrup stashed away in the fridge. It works great in mojitos as well. And if you’re gonna be really picky, you should always use crushed ice.

  • darren

    That’s funny, I just made one for myself today out of the huge mint patch that grows out of control on the south side of our shed.

    I agree with mantonat above. Check out Christ McMillian’s video. Poetry and bourbon. Can’t go wrong.

  • Karin

    The Oak Room at the Plaza… Yet another reason why I enjoy your site. You always help to invoke the best memories!

  • Mark Preston

    The Mint Julep.

    Julep is a word of Arabic origin: julab or Persian: gul-[amac]b (rose water).

    The Julep is a source of inspiration for the English poet John Milton in his work Comus

    And first behold this cordial julep here,
    That flames and dances in his crystal bounds,
    With spirits of balm and fragrant syrups mixed.
    Not that Nepenthes which the wife of Thone
    In Egypt gave to Jove-born Helena
    Is of such power to stir up joy as this,
    To life so friendly, or so cool to thirst.

    So, without further introduction:

    3 parts Bourbon whiskey
    1 part Peach Brandy
    sugar – 1 teaspoon per glass (or 1 teaspoon of simple syrup)
    mint, it should be baby or spring mint, and copious quantities of it

    No need to muddle. Put the simple syrup or sugar in the glass, add cracked ice. There is no substitute for cracked ice. It is half the drink. Over the ice add the bourbon and brandy. Next, populate the glass with mint. I don’t mean a sprig or two, you must use a handful. Literally. The notion is, that when you take a drink, your nose should touch the mint, not just your mouth. In this way, the mint fragrance provided one organoleptic quality, while the mixture of bourbon and brandy mixes in the mouth in an extraordinay way.

    I make myself Mint Juleps when Springtime brings vast quantities of mint.

  • Karen J

    DEFINITELY plant the mint in a place where it can’t escape, those roots can travel ten feet or more.
    AND, harvest the leaves, wash, dry, chop, and freeze. Then you can make an excellent English vinegar mint sauce any time of year for lamb.

  • allen

    Dang late post! And I started drinking martini whips. Acually i keep a bottle stored in makers bottle in the freezer all year, using garden mint at end of season. Hate to see it go to waste And it last all year long. I put a few sprigs of mint in the bottle as per Michael Chiarello, its a mint jullep, just thin it with club soda And garnish w/ lime And mint. Wooo hoooo! Cheers & happy Friday to all!

  • Ed

    Just made it and am enjoying it. I agree about the vegetal taste, but hey, it has bourbon in it, so it can’t be bad. FYI – I saw the mention of the lemon squeeze in the prologue, but it’s missing in the recipe proper. Keep these coming! (My “drink memories”, an oxymoron if I ever heard one, revolve around straight tequila. At least that one doesn’t deserve a Friday shout out).

  • allen

    OK, gotta amend my earlier post. Disregard the Club soda & lime, thats for a mojito. Just let it ”comingle” with the ice. Lemon & mint to garnish is good though. 2 many martini whips!

  • Cecelia

    Mint juleps were a few weeks ago for the Derby. A little late in this post.

  • Julie

    Your mint julep is green (wierd) but you had a good story…

  • Carly

    This may be a dumb question, but I have almost zero experience with cocktails and have never even had a mint julep – what sort of mint is typically used? I have some apple mint growing out back (in its own container!) but no others.

  • Darcie

    Carly, if you are a purist, you will use spearmint, and not just any plain ol’ variety–you will use Kentucky Colonel spearmint. That said, I see no reason not to use the apple mint. Come to think of it, pineapple mint might be good too (*maybe* even chocolate mint because chocolate and bourbon go well together). The only mint I would say to NOT use is peppermint.

    • Carly

      Thanks! I think I’ll give it a try. I usually take it neat but I guess it can’t hurt to have more ways to drink bourbon.

      For a while there, the blog was a bit wonky and commenting wasn’t really working for me – so glad it’s back; Ruhlman’s is one of the rare blogs where the comments often add as much value as the posts!

  • bloviatrix

    A question regarding the mint – what type: Spearmint? Peppermint? or some other variety? Maybe I’m making things to complicated, but I never see this mentioned.

  • John Robinson

    For the lazy man’s method of making Mint Julips, (and how we do it down here in Alabama) – steep mint leaves in simple syrup while hot for 20 minutes or so, strain, bottle. Add a shot of Maker’s and a shot of Mint Syrup to a shaker, shake, pour over ice. Taste just as good and always available without having to grab the mint, muddle and everything else. Mint Syrup in a 1:1 ratio of sugar/water lasts for months in the fridge.

    • Carol Melancon

      I keep mint simple syrup on hand for Mint Juleps because Southern ladies prefer to smile at gentlemen without flecks of green stuck between their teeth.


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