The Right Way to Make a Mint Julep

Smash your ice—but not your mint—for the perfect Derby Day drink

A proper mint julep is an exceedingly simple drink—whiskey, sugar, mint, ice. But there are a dozen ways to make a disappointing mint julep, whether too weak or too bitter, over-sweetened or speckled with sad, shredded mint. The simpler the cocktail, the more essential it is to get the details right.

The most common crime against juleps? Over-working the mint. Smashing delicate mint leaves, pounding and breaking them, releases bitter compounds. Instead, just give the mint a firm press in the glass, enough to express its flavors without muddling too hard. Once you garnish with a huge mint bouquet, it'll be plenty minty.

The other critical element: ice. Virtually all cocktails are stirred or shaken with ice, to chill the drink and dilute the alcohol just a bit. With a julep, the heaping mound of crushed ice isn't just an elegant presentation; it also melts quickly, which in this case, is what we're after. Take away the crushed ice and a julep is just as boozy as an Old-Fashioned: tons of whiskey, a little sugar, and that's about it. It's the pile of slushy ice that transforms straight whiskey into an easy-sipping, day-friendly cocktail that's far more refreshing than a drink that stiff has any right to be.

These days, bourbon is considered essential for a mint julep (and we’ll never say no to a bourbon julep). But in centuries past, the drink was made with brandy or even dark rum; once you’ve got the basic technique down, experiment away.

The Technique

Have crushed ice on-hand before you prepare the cocktail. If you've got a powerful blender or ice machine that gives you relatively uniform crushed ice, go for it. If not? Wrap ice in a clean dish towel (or a canvas ice bag, but the fancy gear is hardly necessary). Hold the towel closed, lay it on the counter, and smash it with whatever you have handy—a mallet, wrench, a meat tenderizer. Keep whacking until you've got the ice crushed to your satisfaction.

Keep the ice cold while you place mint in the bottom of a julep cup or glass, and add half your simple syrup. (Adding only half at this point keeps the liquid from splashing.) With your muddler, gently press down on the mint leaves—you don't want to smash them, just release their flavor into the drink. Add the remaining simple syrup and your bourbon. Fill the cup with ice, up and over the brim, and press down gently to form a mound. Garnish with a large bouquet of mint, gently tapping the sprigs on your palms before adding to the drink, to release their aroma. Finally, add a straw, pushing it all the way to the bottom of the glass. For maximum effect, place the straw such that, when you take a sip, your nose goes right near the mint.

Try It In This

Mint Julep
Mint Julep with Rum Float
When it comes to this classic cocktail, smash your ice—but not your mint. Get the recipe »Matt Taylor-Gross

Here we’re making a classic julep, then dressing it up with a float of good dark rum—a nod to colonial days, when juleps were often rum-based—and with its barrel-aged character and slight sweetness, a great match for bourbon.

Get the recipe for Mint Julep with Rum Float »