This month’s MxMo theme is Flores de Mayo, presented by Dave at The Barman Cometh. When I first saw this, I figured that I’d take this month off. I figured that since the only floral cocktail I could think of off the top of my head was the awesome Aviation, and I assumed it will be well-covered elsewhere. (As I write this, I get a ping-back that tells me Kim of Understanding Cocktails is already fulfilling my prediction.) But then I realized that I have in fact recently been drinking a fairly hefty number of a cocktail in which the floral element is utterly critical: The Mint Julep.
Mint is an herb, not a flower.
That’s true, but the floral element I’m talking about is Orange Flower Water. Without it, you can’t make a really kicking Mint Julep. I know it is a little late to write about Juleps, what with the Kentucky Derby already in the books, but that leads to my whole post. Today, the only time anyone drinks Juleps is on Derby Day. Why? Because 97.235% of all Mint Juleps made today are… nasty. (Source: Institute of Statistics I Pulled Out of My Ass But Are Totally Accurate Anyway)
Even among the cocktail-knowledgeable readership of this blog, I’ll wager that half the readers have never had a decent one, and fewer still of you have had one that has you looking forward to another before you even finish the first. What is the secret?
I’ve written about Mint Juleps before, emphasizing different elements.
First, on the question of Rye versus Bourbon, I prefer Rye. Bourbon, the modern default, usually tastes better at the first sip, but by the time you get through an entire glass of this minty sweet concoction, the rye maintains the drinker’s interest better. I think the reason is that the spice in Rye stands in greater contrast to the sugar, keeping the palate clean.
Second, Juleps benefit from some added complexity. During the heyday of the drink, there were a multitude of recipes for all manner of Juleps. A good number of these looked more like Tiki concoctions than classic cocktails. I don’t get so Byzantine, but I do think that Mint Juleps make the step from upper crust hunch punch to serious drink when you add in some good dark rum to the mix.
Third, proper handling and dosing of the sugar and mint are of course mandatory. It’s easy to yield to temptation and use too much. You can easily lose all depth and interest of the liquor if you use too much. I imagine that this is how the julep dropped out of public favor. Prohibition left us, during and for a while after, with nothing but rot-gut liquor. If you have only this to drink, then a candy-flavored Mint Julep is a great way to disguise the awful taste. But when booze started to get good again, people seem to have retained the Prohibition recipe.
If you want to enjoy your Julep as a good cocktail, use your sugar sparingly. And muddle less mint, less aggressively. Instead, use a huge, lush, Mai Tai-like spray of it as a garnish for looks and aroma.
Do all that, and you’ll have a delicious, but still not remarkable drink. The final ingredient that you seldom see in a Julep recipe is a tiny amount of something called Orange Flower Water. Like bitters, orange flower water (and it’s sidekick, rose flower water) is an ingredient where a little goes a long way. A mere quarter teaspoon full will completely open up this drink already filled with powerful and fragrant ingredients. It subtly transforms the essence of your Mint Julep from a more or less culinary feel into something that evokes the fresh, natural outdoors of the rural South. (I’d elaborate on the transformation more, but I’m starting to sound like Alex Ott… even to myself.) It’s a very subtle ingredient, in that you really only notice it when you leave it out and you find you really miss it.
- 2 oz. rye whiskey
- 1 oz. dark rum (not Jamaican)
- 1/3 oz. simple syrup
- 8-10 mid-sized fresh mint leaves
- 1/4 tsp. orange flower water
Place mint leaves in bottom of a double old-fashioned glass, and cover with simple. Muddle gently but thoroughly (don’t tear the leaves). Add other ingredients and stir. Top with crushed ice and swizzle until a good frost develops on the outside of the glass. Garnish with a generous sprig of fresh mint.
Orange flower water (also known as orange blossom water) is not the easiest ingredient to find in your grocery store, even when they do carry it. Some stores will carry it in the spice aisle. Others have it in the baking section. Still others will have it in the ethnic food section, usually under the rather broad sobriquet of “Mediterranean”. Most stores won’t carry it at all. There is quite a bit of it available on the internet of course. The brand I use, and you most often find in regular stores, is A Monteux. Amazon is out right now, but here’s another from a company called Malandel. (Sixteen ounces is a lot of OFW. I can’t find a good answer on how long it keeps, but since it is nothing but volatiles in distilled water, I’m sure it gets weak long before you’ll use 16 ounces.)
Darcy notes that orange flower water from France is different from the stuff by the same name from the Eastern Mediterranean. The French is more aromatic and less flavorful, making it better suited for cocktail applications. Be careful when you go looking for it.
If you have access to fresh orange blossoms, you could make your own water as well. There are two ways I’ve found, and since I can’t get my hands of orange blossoms around here, I have tried neither yet.
The easiest way is to macerate your orange blossoms in distilled water, then put in mason jars and steep in the sun for a couple of weeks, until the aroma whacks you when you open the jar. I suspect that this method will produce a more eastern kind of flower water with more flavor than you might want, however.
The other method is the one more commonly described for making rose flower water, where you actually distill the aromatics out of the petals. (I first saw this on Good Eats. Alton Brown just popped up on Twitter, then promptly announced he was ending Good Eats after 249 episodes. Follow him and call him a quitter.)
Place a brick in a large pot with a domed lid. Fill the pot with blossoms and distilled water to the top of the brick. Put a heat-safe glass bowl in the brick. Put the lid on upside down and fill with ice. Bring the pot to a good simmer and the aromatic steam will condense on the icy lid, running down the curve and dripping into the bowl. This method sounds fun, but hard to balance.
If anyone has done either method, I’d love to hear how it went. I’ll be doing it with rose petals from my garden this Summer.
Of course, orange flower water is good from more than just Mint Juleps. The big Kahuna among cocktails is the Ramos Gin Fizz and numerous other fizzes. It’s also a common ingredient in all sorts of desserts.
Orange flower water is not terribly expensive, and will last you longer than a bottle of bitters, so give it a whirl. Than head back to Dave’s and check out the rest of this Mixology Monday!