No one has written more eloquently of the mint julep than Hunter S. Thompson. Quoting gentleman of leisure "Jimbo" in his definitive piece on the horsiest hullabaloo in history, The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved, the Louisville-born Thompson reported, "'Goddam, we gotta educate this boy. Get him some good whiskey...'"
Consider us educated, but let's back up. Nothing is straightforward when juleps are involved.
In honor of the 142nd edition of "the greatest two minutes in sports," set to take place Saturday, May 7 at Churchill Downs, a handful of thirsty Boise Weekly staffers bellied up for a Friday afternoon exercise in decadence with a few rounds of Kentucky aqua vie muddled with homegrown Kentucky mint and served in traditional pewter julep cups and some lovely long glasses featuring Southern belles on swings. (We're apparently the kind of people who own an excess of vessels).
The julep is easy to concoct: two ounces of bourbon, a teaspoon or two of simple syrup, three sprigs of crushed mint, crushed ice and water, built in a highball glass or, if you're a true Kentucky Colonel, in the aforementioned pewter cup. A dense metal, pewter holds a low temperature once chilled, making it perfect for a hot May afternoon at the track. Make no mistake, the julep is a day drink meant to signal you don't have a damn thing to do but sip whiskey and watch horses run in a circle.
For our tasting, we sampled three premium bottles: Old Forester 1870, Old Forester 1897 and Woodford Rye. These are serious whiskeys, none clocking in lower than 90 proof and all with a price tag above $40. If you're going to drink a mint julep, you best go big. Even better, we mixed our drinks with locally produced Simple Snow mint syrup (facebook.com/simplesnowboise). This Boise company deserves its own article, but here's the shorthand version: Begun as snow cone business, Simple Snow syrups come in a range of flavors, from cranberry and grapefruit, to vanilla bean and, of course, mint.
The latter variety has a fresh-cut scent and tastes sweet without being cloying. Because Simple Snow uses no additives, corn products or artificial flavors, it goes down without a hint of saccharine. In other words, it's the ideal accessory to any cocktail needing a hit of sweetness.
Old Forester 1870, $44.95—Weighing in at 90 proof, there's an astringent quality to the nose but overall, this bourbon has a sweet, baked-caramel scent or, as one taster said, "It smells like a muffin." It is remarkably clean for its proof and pours a "velvety orange-brown," according to the tasting notes. Old Forester hails from Hunter Thompson's hometown of Louisville, Ken., and is billed as "America's first bottled Bourbon." The 1870 is a tribute to that first small batch, using whiskeys from three different barrels of varying ages and stages of proofing. The result is a viscous, somewhat spicy tipple that dissolves neatly into a baked, almost raisin flavor. It's a special bottle.
Old Forester 1897, $49.95—Like its older sister, the 1897 comes with a storied past. Its pedigree derives from the year the Unites States enacted "bottled in bond" regulations, ensuring standardized quality assurances. Part of the "Whiskey Row" series, this is the second expression of historic whiskeys in the Old Forester line. Sipped straight, it has a sweet caramel aroma similar to the 1870 but pours a darker amber. Robust and biting—owing to its 100-proof character—the 1897 is almost Scotch-like in complexity. It goes down smoother than a high proof whiskey should, with a roasty aftertaste that sticks in your mouth. Looking for personality in your Bourbon? You got it. As one of our tasters put it, "One sip of Old Forester and you know his bio."
Woodford Rye, $45.95—Because mint juleps are so beloved, there is debate about what kind of whiskey should be used in the mix. The Old Forester varieties represent a deeply traditional form of Kentucky straight Bourbon: wheat-based and smooth. Rye is generally considered a no-no when it comes to the easy drinking julep, but this 90.4-proof expression from Woodford—a well known name in premium whiskeys—is a fascinating choice. Rye whiskey has enjoyed a heightened popularity in recent years with its spicy, acerbic bite, and Woodford's new-to-the-market foray into rye does not disappoint. Comprised of 53 percent rye, 14 percent malt and 33 percent corn, it presents with a fine botanical bite that chills the tongue. Smooth and well balanced, it's almost as if mint is already infused with this Bourbon. It fades nicely, making for a superb sipping rye—an accomplishment in its own right.
Bottoms Up: We made juleps with all three whiskeys and, damnit, it was hard to rank them.
The Old Forester 1870 is a smooth sipper but doesn't quite hold up in the cocktail. The oils from the muddled mint mixed with the Simple Snow syrup and water simply overpower its relaxed nature. We'd suggest drinking this one on its own, perhaps with a couple of rocks.
The Woodford rye presents a triple-mint bite and mixes well, but results in a minty iced tea flavor that is pleasant but lacks the seriousness of a well-built julep.
The winner was the Old Forester 1897. The big, bold 100-proof sharpness bursts through the mint profiles while carrying a sense of sweetness and hiding the burn. The Simple Snow syrup inhabits the drink rather than defining it, and evens out the oily spice of the fresh mint. This is a whiskey that plays well with its fellow ingredients and remains dangerous as hell, "Which is how I like it," said one of our tasters.