If most cocktail recipes are to be believed, every fruit, vegetable, and herb in the world has exactly one variety. That would certainly simplify the process of shopping for ingredients, but we should probably be grateful that it’s not the case. The diversity of plant cultivars available today is one of the largest (but perhaps most underrated) contributors to creativity and innovation in the world of craft cocktails, and we want to make sure you all know what’s really out there so you can get experimenting. With the Kentucky Derby right around the corner, we thought we’d kick things off by exploring the ins and outs of mint to spice up your juleps.
The classic and most common variety used in cocktails is, of course, spearmint (Mentha spicata). It’s the standard for a reason—the light, bright sweetness both mellows and elevates a spirit, and can even temper overly-sugary recipes. But specifying “spearmint” on your shopping list is still a little vague. Mojito Mint (Mentha x villosa), for example, is a milder cultivar originating in Cuba that works best in—you guessed it—Mojitos. For the Southerners and Derby-goers, though, a more appropriate choice for Mint Juleps is the aptly-named Kentucky Colonel (Mentha cordifolia). Its robust character prevents it from being overwhelmed by the syrup and melting ice, and provides a hearty counterpoint to the bourbon.
With nearly 600 varieties of mint out there, though, there’s no need to limit yourself to the basics. Chocolate mint, a cultivar of peppermint (Mentha piperita), is a great option for those times you want to put a creative spin on a classic. As its name implies, this variety imparts an aroma that’s reminiscent of Thin Mints or Andes after-dinner mints, making it a perennial crowd-pleaser. Keep in mind, though, that peppermint derivatives tend to have a relatively high menthol content, so they run the risk of making a cocktail taste like cough syrup if not used sparingly.
Another peppermint cultivar, orange mint (Mentha piperita citrata), lends itself brilliantly to various recipes. Its citrus notes blend well with the lime in Mojitos, and it can be added to dozens of other cocktails to make light, refreshing variations. Orange Mint Margaritas and Orange Whiskey Smashes are particularly good, and you can even try drying the leaves and using them to make your own infused spirits. This is a versatile cultivar that’s ripe for experimentation.
Growing Your Own
You might be wondering where you’re supposed to get your hands on this stuff, since the grocery store only ever has boxes of sad, wilted sprigs simply labeled “mint.” While there are specialty stores and high-end grocers where you can pick up a wider variety of herb cultivars, we strongly suggest growing your own. Mint doesn’t stay fresh for very long after being cut, so the store-bought leaves have likely lost a lot of the essential oils and volatiles they had when they were still on the plant. Fresh cuttings from your garden or a window box will impart significantly more flavor.
Mint is an extraordinarily difficult plant to kill, even for the most inept gardeners, to the extent that a good number of people would consider it a weed. When planting it in your garden, it’s usually a good idea to keep it contained in a pot with the edges sticking a few inches out of the soil. Otherwise, come the end of summer, it’ll have taken over the whole yard. Orange mint is especially invasive, so it’s probably smart to just keep it in a pot and avoid the issue entirely.
Your local garden center can usually be counted on to carry multiple mint varieties, and they’ll save you the trouble of having to germinate the seeds yourself. Online retailers can provide even more selection if you’re feeling particularly adventurous.