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Aside from horses and big hats, nothing signifies Derby Day more than an ice-cold mint julep. The iconic bourbon cocktail is typically served in a frosty metal glass with crushed ice and sprigs of mint. Because the cocktail has so few ingredients—just bourbon, simple syrup, mint, and ice—every single component must do serious work. That includes the ice. And if you want to do the julep justice at your May 5 Derby party, that ice has to be crushed.
April Wachtel, mixologist and founder of cocktail company Swig + Swallow, has strong feelings about the mint julep, as well as the necessity of crushed ice.
"You have to get the julep cups super icy, and that’s easier to do with crushed ice because there’s more surface area," she says. "That, with the process of stirring vigoriously, enables you to get a really nice frost on the outside of the cup."
Rather than purchasing crushed ice, or getting it from your fridge's ice machine, Wachtel recommends making it the classic—and very dramatic—way: with a mallet.
The traditional way to crush the ice is to stuff it inside of a canvas bag, then bash it with the mallet, but Wachtel says you can use a dish towel instead. The important thing is that you're crushing the ice inside of canvas or fabric, and not a plastic bag, because you want the material to absorb any extra moisture, so you're not dumping a bunch of cold water into your drink.
"As a consumer, you could crush the ice with a dish cloth and really any heavy implement," she says. So if you don't have a mallet, find something else you could use to bash.
Because the crushed ice has more surface area than cubes of ice, it melts a bit more into the cocktail over time, making the drink especially delicious.
"That’s one of the things that make mint juleps so refreshing, because otherwise it's just a straight spirits cocktail," says Wachtel. "Old fashioneds and negronis tend to be very viscuous; you can have one or maybe two. Mint juleps—you can have multiple."
And multiple juleps is certainly the plan.
As for the bourbon, a.k.a the star, Wachtel says, "I’ll usually go for Maker’s Mark Bourbon when making juleps at home and when I want to switch it up a bit I’ll go for a cognac like Pierre Ferrand Réserve."