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Best bourbon for mint juleps


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We have a great wide-ranging topic on mint juleps, but I have a very specific requirement.

What's the best bourbon for a mint julep? We're teaching a class on herbs, and part of the curriculum is showing how to make the drink, then passing out 2- to 2-1/2 ounce samples. We're not really bourbon people, and our house brand is Evan Williams (black), which suits our budgetary and mixing needs. But in a julep, the bourbon will be front and center, and we want to make sure that we've got a good one for our needs. Also, this will likely be the first julep most of our students will have ever had (hence the selection of the most common base spirit for our demo), and we want them to get a good sense of the drink.

Ideally, it wouldn't cost more than $30/750, but if members here have more extravagant suggestions, we can pass them along.

Dave Scantland
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dscantland@eGstaff.org
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Best is certainly in the eye of the beholder, but in that price range, plain ol' Buffalo Trace makes a fine Julep (the Violet Hour had a single barrel bottling of BT that made the best Juleps I've ever had, sadly it's long gone). For something with a bit more character, Weller 107 would be a great choice.

True rye and true bourbon wake delight like any great wine...dignify man as possessing a palate that responds to them and ennoble his soul as shimmering with the response.

DeVoto, The Hour

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Buffalo Trace was on our list. We were also considering Knob Creek (a little above our price range, but not by far), Bulleit and some higher proof offerings, like Old Grandad or Wild Turkey 101. Are there significant differences among them that we can explicate?

Dave Scantland
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dscantland@eGstaff.org
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Eat more chicken skin.

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Well, it depends on how deep you want to go... There are the general spirits and aged-spirits truisms (proof is flavor; age is good, but more age isn't necessarily better), or since you're focusing on bourbon, you could track down mash bills and start talking about how total % of corn, rye vs. wheat as the 'flavor grain', etc. produce different results. But, as you're only going to be presenting one sample, I'm not sure how much comparing/contrasting you're going to be able to integrate into the presentation.

Of those you mention, I might shy away from Knob Creek (the premium doesn't really buy you anything special, in my opinion), but they'd all make acceptable Juleps.

True rye and true bourbon wake delight like any great wine...dignify man as possessing a palate that responds to them and ennoble his soul as shimmering with the response.

DeVoto, The Hour

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In my opinion, by far the most important consideration is proof when it comes to Juleps. You need at least 100 proof. (Personally, I don't find much reason to have a sub-proof bourbon around generally.) Don't forget that you're going to get some melting before you hit thermal equilibrium.

After that, it all becomes a matter of preferences and tastes. I vastly prefer a Prescription Julep made with a base of high proof cognac (Louis Royer Force 53 or Pierre Ferrant 1840) over one made with bourbon. I also like rye Juleps made with Rittenhouse BIB. Or, for that matter, you can make a pretty good Julep with Bols genever. I prefer all of these things to bourbon juleps, although I will admit that this is at least partly due to contraryness over having the historically inaccurate orthododoxy of bourbon Juleps rammed down our throats for so long.

If you're sticking with bourbon, however, it's nice to know that some of the oldest and most venerable brands can be had for very little money. For example, Old Grand Dad 100 proof is a very good quality bourbon that can be had for an absurdly low price compared to lesser brands. And the 114 proof bottling is only around 5 or 6 bucks more. For Julep making, it's hard to see how you could do better than OGD 114 without spending a lot more money.

Edited by slkinsey (log)

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I agree with all the comments above ("best" is in the eye of the beholder, proof matters, you can get pretty darn good bourbon for pretty low dollars, and I prefer a high-proof cognac like Force 53).

A little while back, while making a big batch of juleps for a Derby Day party, we did an experiment along these lines, looking for the best relatively-low-dollar bourbon for a julep (again, according to our beholders' eyes). The comparison included Old Grand Dad (100 proof), Evan Williams (86 proof), Ezra Brooks (90 proof) and Wild Turkey (101 proof). Our favorite was Ezra Brooks, which, as an added bonus, was one of the lower-dollar bottles in the comparison.

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In my opinion, by far the most important consideration is proof when it comes to Juleps. You need at least 100 proof. (Personally, I don't find much reason to have a sub-proof bourbon around generally.) Don't forget that you're going to get some melting before you hit thermal equilibrium.

After that, it all becomes a matter of preferences and tastes. I vastly prefer a Prescription Julep made with a base of high proof cognac (Louis Royer Force 53 or Pierre Ferrant 1840) over one made with bourbon. I also like rye Juleps made with Rittenhouse BIB. Or, for that matter, you can make a pretty good Julep with Bols genever. I prefer all of these things to bourbon juleps, although I will admit that this is at least partly due to contraryness over having the historically inaccurate orthododoxy of bourbon Juleps rammed down our throats for so long.

If you're sticking with bourbon, however, it's nice to know that some of the oldest and most venerable brands can be had for very little money. For example, Old Grand Dad 100 proof is a very good quality bourbon that can be had for an absurdly low price compared to lesser brands. And the 114 proof bottling is only around 5 or 6 bucks more. For Julep making, it's hard to see how you could do better than OGD 114 without spending a lot more money.

Somehow, I agree with all of this, while still feeling that Buffalo Trace is probably a fine selection for Dave's group. Those sipping their first julep are probably not going to respond all that well to barrel-proof (or thereabouts) spirits. Call me paternalist, but the cocktail being served at the class on herbs can probably stand a bit of orthodoxy.

True rye and true bourbon wake delight like any great wine...dignify man as possessing a palate that responds to them and ennoble his soul as shimmering with the response.

DeVoto, The Hour

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Thanks, everyone, for helping out. In the end it came down to -- as it so often does -- what was actually on the shelf at the liquor store where we went to buy the booze. We found Sam's arguments to be compelling, and were in search of something of 100 proof or better. To our shock, there was no Old Grand Dad at all, at any ABV. We bought Wild Turkey 101. The Buffalo Trace probably would have been fine, but as Kurt points out, the point of the exercise was not about bourbon, it was about herbs -- in this case, mint. So we quit worrying about getting the perfect base liquor, and concentrated on the part that the herb plays in a julep.

We showed how to build the drink, made everyone slap their mint, and explained how to place the garnish in proximity to the straws for maximum face time. Those two things were sufficiently revelatory to the group that we feel like we made our point. I don't think, though, that any of the students will be going off to buy bourbon. Instead, we gave them a lesson that will probably help them make . . . better mojitos.

Is that a bad thing? I don't think so.

Dave Scantland
Executive director
dscantland@eGstaff.org
eG Ethics signatory

Eat more chicken skin.

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  • 2 weeks later...

In general I would advocate for a 100-proof or higher bourbon for juleps--it's a pretty naked drink with a ton of melty crushed ice so you want a spirit that's going to hang around for a while. OGD 100 is a great choice that balances proof, quality, and price point.

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