No topic of conversation can turn the mood in a Southern cocktail lounge more quickly than how to make a proper julep, which combines fresh mint, bourbon, and sugar. This staple of the Kentucky Derby requires attention to every last detail, including the signature silver cup in which it’s served.
Though the first mention of a julep dates back to 1400, when it referred to a syrup used to mask the bitterness of medicine, it became a quintessential American beverage with the addition of mint. Social historian Gerald Carson once mused that “none excels the harmony with which mint blends into a silver goblet filled with ice, a dusting of sugar, and several ounces of mellow bourbon.”
Muddling the mint and sugar in the bottom of a glass is key to extracting the essential oils, but a proper julep begins with crushed ice. “Not only does it help the drink chill down faster, but it helps all the flavors of the julep to infuse much quicker,” says Bridget Albert, master mixologist at Southern Wine and Spirits of Illinois.
Muddling serves as the defining technique for both smashes and caipirinhas, as well. Smashes, which emerged in the mid 19th century, muddle lemon and mint with a base spirit, while caipirinhas muddle lime and sugar with the South American spirit cachaça.