Brian Makes Mint Juleps: The Henry Clay

Program Director Brian Cushing finally makes a mint julep with bourbon, based on a recipe from Henry Clay. Take it away, Brian! 


After two installments of historic mint julep recipes with not a single drop of Bourbon poured, we will be rescued here briefly by the man known as “The Great Compromiser,” Mr. Henry Clay of Kentucky, himself. Mr. Clay wrote down his recipe for the mint julep in the 1840s, now in the collection of the University of Kentucky, and if not the first documented mint julep known to be made with Bourbon, it is certainly one of the very earliest. Mr. Clay wrote:

“The mint leaves, fresh and tender, should be pressed against a coin-silver goblet with the back of a silver spoon. Only bruise the leaves gently and then remove them from the goblet. Half fill with cracked ice. Mellow bourbon, aged in oaken barrels, is poured from the jigger and allowed to slide slowly through the cracked ice.

In another receptacle, granulated sugar is slowly mixed into chilled limestone water to make a silvery mixture as smooth as some rare Egyptian oil, then poured on top of the ice. While beads of moisture gather on the burnished exterior of the silver goblet, garnish the brim of the goblet with the choicest sprigs of mint.”

Bourbon is documented to have been recognized as its own category of whiskey during the 1820s so it had time to establish itself by the time Clay wrote down his recipe. It would not be until 1964 that Congress passed the legal definition that governs what can be called Bourbon now so this was a cultural consensus vs. a legal definition.

We may never know exactly what Clay’s preferred Bourbon tasted like but, personally, I prefer Old Bardstown Bottled in Bond (white label, 100 proof) for a mint julep. You can use whatever Bourbon you like best or happen to have on hand. To recreate this recipe, you will need:

  • A silver, silver plate, or otherwise metal cup
  • A few sprigs of mint
  • Crushed ice
  • 2 oz. Bourbon
  • 1 tsp granulated sugar
  • 2 tbsp. cold water
  • Straw

Remove the leaves from one of your mint stalks. Use the back of a spoon to bruise them on the inside of your cup. Discard the leaves. Fill your cup 1/2-3/4 full of the crushed ice. Pour in the Bourbon (no need to mix). In a separate cup combine and mix the sugar and water. (Do not substitute simple syrup here- it will not deliver the same effect.) The sugar will likely not completely dissolve in the cold water so just get it good and mixed, keep it moving, and pour it into the julep quickly before it has a chance to settle. Again- no need to mix. Take a mint sprig or two, rub them in your hands to release the scent, and place stalk down in the beverage. Place a straw next to the mint and clip off so that your nose will be near the mint as you sip.

While Bourbon may have been decades away from being embraced as the standard spirit of the mint julep, this very much falls into the image that we have of them today and is possibly the best I have ever had. The lack of compounding of the ingredients is what really makes it. Everything just settles down through the ice and casually mingles as the cup takes on its refreshing frost and you experience the full character of each ingredient for what it is while they complement each other without becoming lost.

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