Monday 7 March 2022

Instant Mint Julep

This is what the syrup looks like neat
I found myself with a glut of fresh mint after one of the Candlelight Club events. I don’t like to see food go to waste, so I’ll usually round up all the left-over ingredients and cart them home. (After Halloween, in addition to the flesh cut from the giant jack-o-lanterns, I also brought home half a dozen squashes of various kinds, which had been bought for decoration—and I’m pleased to say we made our way through all of them.)

Obviously fresh herbs won’t keep for that long, and there is only so much tabbouleh a man can eat, so I hit upon the idea of making a mint-flavoured syrup.

The Mint Julep is a classic—nay, the classic—drink of the American South, but I’ve always struggled to make satisfactory examples at home. The general idea is that you mash fresh mint at the bottom of a glass with sugar or sugar syrup before adding whiskey and lots of ice; but I always find the mint flavour elusive and the mangled shrubbery in the glass a bit unsightly.

So for this experiment I infused the mint into the syrup ahead of time, kept it in the fridge and just added it to bourbon on the rocks to make the drink. And it worked extremely well.

I did this a few months ago, so I’m a bit hazy on the proportions but I think I measured about 400 ml of granulated sugar and 200 ml or water and heated them in a pan till all the sugar was dissolved. I added two rough handfuls of mint and left it on a low simmer. I can’t quite remember exactly how long I left it—certainly no more than 30 minutes, and to be honest by the end I was sure I wouldn’t want to leave it any longer, as the mint was just starting to take on a cooked flavour. I strained and bottled it. And the result was a julep with a clearer mint flavour and no bits of greenery floating around.

To be honest, I have heard that at the Kentucky Derby—of which the Mint Julep is the official drink—they use a mint syrup, perhaps just for speed and efficiency, though I don’t know if any fresh mint is involved with that or just a commercial essence.

One caveat is that although it keeps quite well without the flavour changing, it won’t last forever. After a few months the flavour is somehow not as fresh and, like all syrups, it is at risk of mould.* And to be honest I don’t drink juleps that often, so it does tend to hang around here. But if you do have a julep habit, then you should consider making a batch of this stuff at the beginning of the summer.


UPDATE 23rd June 2022: I later made a second batch and this time I muddled the fresh mint continuously for five minutes in the simmering syrup, then strained it immediately. I think this is a better bet, as the flavour was no less strong, but you avoid any hint of a “cooked” mint taste.

A julep made with the mint syrup (in the jug to the right). It should really be crushed ice.

* The hardiest syrup I make is grenadine. This is traditionally made from pomegranate juice, but I was surprised to see that commercial grenadine today is mostly made from red berries. Since you can buy 100% fresh pomegranate juice in the supermarket (ever since the pomegranate was declared a super-food), it was easy enough to experiment with. For simple syrup I normally blend two-thirds sugar with one-third water, but I found that using the same ratio with pomegranate juice actually produced something that set solid at room temperature—perhaps there is pectin or something in the juice. However, at 1:1 it words a treat. The resulting syrup has a certain tannic tartness that balances the sweetness and makes it a very useful cocktail ingredient if you don’t have a massively sweet tooth. And, kept in the fridge, it seems to last an extremely long time.