Southerners are known for our devotion to the syrupy, sweet, golden-brown drink called bourbon. And to prove our affection, we’ve even created more than just a few cocktails featuring our favorite liquor. But when May rolls around, and it’s time to tune into the events at Churchill Downs, only one mixed bourbon drink reigns king: the mint julep. Crafted with crushed ice, muddled mint, and sugar, then served in elegant silver julep vessels, this cocktail deserves just the right bourbon. But with so many good options, how do you pick? Most of the decision-making should be left to your tastebuds, but we do have a few tips for helping choose.
- Price Point. When it comes to mixing cocktails, don’t use your most expensive bourbons. The other ingredients—in this case, sugar and mint—that help create the signature flavor of your drink, also mask the nuances of a top shelf bourbon. Prices vary from state-to-state and store-to-store, but generally, we don't advise spending more than $45 on alcohol you plan to shake or stir. Bottom shelf bourbon isn’t a great option for a well-crafted julep either. Find the middle ground. As a rule of thumb, anything you see at eye level in local liquor store is likely about the right price for mixing up this festive libation.
Related: Stir Up a Classic Mint Julep
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- Region of Origin. Brace yourself. While we do love our Tennessee whiskey, you just can’t beat Kentucky bourbon when it comes to crafting the official cocktail of the state’s most celebrated event. Kentucky is home to more than 20 working distilleries that collectively produce over 200 brands—from the well-known staples such as Maker’s Mark to small batch favorites like Knob Creek. And even if it’s out of principal alone, we beg, don’t make your mint julep without two parts Kentucky bourbon.
- Ingredients. Typically bourbons are wheat based or rye based. You can’t go wrong with either but you'll get a slightly different flavor with each. Rye-based bourbons, like Wild Turkey, tend to be spicier; wheat-based bourbons, like Old Fitzgerald, tend to be smoother and sweeter. Others, like Buffalo Trace, strike a balance of both flavors giving you the best of both worlds. It’s a matter of preference, but you should know what you’re pouring into your julep cup.
- Age. Bourbon lovers know that the longer it ages, the more complex and rich the bourbon will taste. With the same idea as the price point thought noted above, you don’t want to drink those flavors all covered up by the ingredients of your cocktail, so stick with younger bourbons. They also tend to be lighter, which is perfect for a summer drink.
If you really want to test your bourbon skils, set up a taste-test and go head-to-head against our favorite Southern grandparents as they try to pick-out the expensive bourbon.