The Kentucky Derby is a true Southern spectacle, with its own menu, dress code, and cocktail—all for a horse race that lasts barely two minutes. But the mint julep, which today is thoroughly linked to the Derby, was once among the most popular drinks in America.
Fortunately, the julep is now back in the bartender’s lexicon, and not just at Derby time. Few bars, however, elevate it to the heights that Austin’s new Half Step does. Located in the bustling Rainey Street district, Half Step is a studied addition to what is fast becoming a kind of tippler’s row (the folks behind it are also responsible for the Varnish, in Los Angeles, which was named Best American Cocktail Bar at the 2012 Spirited Awards). Its Prescription Julep is a showcase for the bar’s hip historical awareness and fluid expertise. This version of the drink was first “prescribed” in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine in 1857. Starting with simple syrup, mint, and a sugar cube, the drink is constructed directly in a julep cup. Half Step utilizes Pierre Ferrand 1840 Original Formula cognac, crafted to replicate the historic cognacs that were produced before phylloxera devastated Europe’s ancient vineyards. To the mixture is added rye whiskey and crushed ice (which, in 1857, had only recently become a standard julep feature). The drink is stirred, piled high with more crushed ice, garnished with fresh mint, dusted with powdered sugar, and served with a short metal straw. Basically, this is the greatest adult snow cone ever.
Half Step’s Prescription Julep may seem like rococo folly, but no detail of this concoction is without purpose. A history lesson never went down so easy.
couple sprigs fresh mint
1 sugar cube
1/4 ounce (scant) simple syrup
1 1/2 ounces Pierre Ferrand 1840 cognac
1/2 ounce Old Overholt rye whiskey
powdered sugar, for dusting
In the bottom of a julep cup or double old-fashioned glass, muddle 6 to 8 mint leaves with sugar cube and syrup. Add spirits and crushed ice and stir to chill and dilute. Add a mound of crushed ice to the top of the drink, then garnish with a sprig of mint and a dusting of powdered sugar. Serve with a short metal straw.