At least once every single year, some tourist in Yellowstone comes across a fully grown bison by the side of the road, munching absently on some grass, and they think, “I should get a selfie.” They approach this wild animal as if it’s not 2000 pounds of stupid and angry, and what happens next is fairly obvious, it seems in hindsight, to everyone but them. A lifetime of thinking all animals are cuddly and fun gets them to that spot, and then reality is what bucks them 10 feet into the air, spiraling to the ground and lucky to escape with their lives.
Why are we talking about bison? Because there’s a parallel here to what happens every spring at Churchill Downs in Kentucky. Google “Mint Julep” and you’ll see myriad pictures of good-looking strangers with big smiles and bigger hats ecstatically toasting each other with frosty silver cups, mint sprigs erupting out of them like some kind of tropical oasis. Given those results, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Mint Juleps are light and breezy. They are not. The Mint Julep, to lift a line from Jeffey Morganthaler, is not a Mojito with whiskey. The Mint Julep is an Old Fashioned with mint. The menthol and crushed ice may trick you into letting your guard down, but you do so at your own peril.
This is not to say, however, that they’re not delicious. Quite the opposite, actually, and once you accept the Mint Julep’s inherent nature, you find lots of room to work. Just like its first cousin the Old Fashioned, the simplicity of the Julep template—spirit, mint, sugar, and ice—means that you can spin it all kinds of ways. Old cocktail books are full of them: You can make a Prescription Julep with cognac and rye, you can make a St. Regis Julep with rum, rye, and grenadine, or you can do my favorite variation, which is to throw a little sunshine in there by way of some Georgia peaches.
The Georgia Julep is traditionally a brandy based drink, a mix of cognac and the once-common, now-obscure Peach Brandy (an oak-aged spirit distilled from peaches, totally distinct from the $8 DeKuyper Peach Flavored Brandy). As it’s still difficult to find peach brandy, the standard line is to make the whole thing with cognac and add a little peach liqueur as a sweetener instead of sugar, or if you’ve got them, fresh peaches. However you make it, the Georgia Julep is absolutely delightful—the soft juiciness of peach is a natural ally of aged spirits, the mint adds brightness, and the crushed ice works its magic to somehow render refreshing what is essentially a large cup of liquor.
The Georgia Julep is extremely simple to make. The only tricky thing is that both the peach and the cognac soften the experience of what is already a duplicitously strong cocktail. It is no less boozy than a traditional Mint Julep, but feels even more approachable. In that way it’s a little like our peaceful bison, standing placidly on the side of the road. And while you can take all the selfies you like with a Georgia Julep, make sure to treat it with the same respect owed to all things that are stronger than they seem.
In a metal cup, gently muddle the mint into the peach liqueur. Add the cognac or bourbon, and fill 2/3 with crushed ice. Stir to chill, until a frost forms on the outside. Then pack the rest of the cup with ice. Take two mint crowns, lightly bruise them with your fingers, and stick them against the inside close to the straw. Enjoy.
Notes on Ingredients
Bourbon or Cognac: I say either spirit here, because while cognac is absolutely the traditional choice, I actually prefer bourbon. I find cognac to be too soft—it already has stone-fruit characteristics like peaches and apricots anyway, so adding even more peach flavor can feel a touch redundant. For bourbon—we mentioned this last year about the Mint Julep, but it’s even more important here—go with a sweeter style. The mint doesn’t want too much spice in the mix and the peach even more so. So Four Roses Small Batch or Buffalo Trace are my top choices, with Woodford Reserve and Maker’s Mark a close second.
That being said, if you have some cognac, it makes an excellent Georgia Julep. I wouldn’t waste something too nice on this—go VSOP or younger. I get somewhat partial to the expressive and unsweetened cognacs from smaller producers like Park or Hine, but given that Hennessy sells like 60 percent of all cognac globally, if that’s what you have, that’s what you should use.
Peach Liqueur: It’s worth seeking out a quality version of this. My favorite is G.E. Massanez, but Giffard, Mathilde, Rothman and Winter, and Cambier are all very high quality producers, and I’d happily accept any of them.
If you have fresh peaches, in particular fresh white peaches, feel free to use those. Muddle one or two slices in the bottom of the cup with the mint, and then add 0.5 oz or so of simple syrup to compensate for the lack of the liqueur’s sweetness. Make sure to muddle and stir well—you want to liberate the juice from the fruit.
Ice: Crushed ice is pretty important here. Juleps taste best when they’re ice cold and well diluted. There are a few ways to do this: Professionals use a dedicated ice mallet and a canvas sack called a Lewis Bag to hammer ice to order, which is surprisingly effective. You can find them for about $30 online. A clean dish towel and a rolling pin provide similar, if less elegant, services. Pulsing bigger cubes in a blender or food processor works as well. If you’d prefer to avoid violence entirely, you can likely buy crushed ice from a local ice company. Secret tip: Every Sonic Drive-In restaurant in the country sells 10 pounds bags of pebble ice for something like $2.