Whether you love the Kentucky Derby for the people-watching (those hats!) or the horse racing, one thing is certain: The derby’s signature mint julep drink is the best tradition of all.
The mint julep is a combination of bourbon, mint, sugar, and water, served over heaps of crushed ice in a signature silver or pewter cup. Although the race itself may last only a couple of minutes, derby fans keep sipping their mint juleps long into the afternoon.
Curious about the history of this favorite Southern libation? Then read on.
The julep first got its start as a medicinal concoction used to settle the stomach. As a cocktail, it blossomed in the American South in the late 1700s, with a decidedly elite air, because not everyone had access to ice nor the silver or pewter cup in which the drink is served.
Known as the unofficial drink of the South, the mint julep became the official drink of the Kentucky Derby in 1938. Nearly 120,000 mint juleps have been sold at the race every year since.
And while it may seem on the surface that the drink is only associated with the Derby, if you dig a little deeper you’ll find that the history of the mint julep is as muddled as the mint in the drink itself. (We’re kidding, the history is actually pretty clear on this one, but we had to throw that joke in there. Don’t shake your head, you would’ve done the same thing.)
First, let’s look at the word julep itself. It’s believed that the word is derived from the Persian gulab, as well as the Arab word julab, both of which translate to “rosewater.” This association is highlighted by the modern drink’s sweet nature.
One of the first references to the mint julep goes as far back as 1784,
The ties to the Kentucky Derby also stretch back a ways to 1938 when it was declared the official drink of the sporting event. There is no real explanation as to why this happened, but it did, and we all benefit now once a year because of it. While most of them are made with Old Forrester, the official bourbon of the Kentucky Derby mint julep since 2015 (previously Early Times was the contracted whiskey), race-goers can pony up $1,000 for a mint julep made with Woodford Reserve and served in a gold-plated glass with a silver straw.
Personally I have not always liked the mint julep. My palate lucky have developed but I still remember my favorite recipient from that time
Brian's Mint Julep
- 2 oz Bourbon. Please use the best you have, you wont regret it
- couple of springs of mint
- 1 oz simple syrup
Take 2 glasses
Place bourbon in one.
In the second place mint and simple syrup and muddle together.
Take your time to gingerly muddle your mint and syrup into a beautiful expression.
Pour second glass into trash and drink the first.
For most Americans, the Mint Julep only makes an appearance once a year during the Kentucky Derby. In New Orleans, it’s a year-round affair.
At Revel Cafe & Bar, bartender Chris McMillian is famous for serving his Mint Julep with a side of performance art, reciting by memory an ode to the drink penned in the 1890s by J. Soule Smith, which opens with, “Then comes the zenith of man’s pleasure. Then comes the julep—the Mint Julep.” This act of hospitality remains spontaneous and unsolicited. “It can be requested, but not always guaranteed,” says McMillian.
His version of the drink, with or without the barside recitation, is the product of many years of dedication. “The beauty of this drink is its simplicity,” says McMillian. “It’s about making each element the best that you can, and understanding that your idea of the best may change over time.
The first thing to consider is the drinking vessel itself. McMillian keeps 18 silver-plated julep cups in circulation at Revel, both for their classic looks but also for their ability to keep the drink properly chilled. The second thing to consider, of course, is mint. McMillian uses about 10 sprigs (“leaves and stems—the whole buster”) per drink, which amounts to about a pound or more a day at Revel, depending on the occasion. He cautions against aggressively muddling the delicate herb, which might release more bitter flavors from the chlorophyll. “You just want to reduce the volume in the glass to make room for the ice and other ingredients,” he says, “and gently volatilize the oils so you can smell the aroma like fresh-cut grass.”
Despite the high volume of of Mint Juleps he makes on a daily basis, McMillian hand-crushes ice per order using an oversized wooden mallet and a canvas Lewis bag, which he believes results in a much drier ice as the bag wicks away most of the extraneous water. There’s also no denying the element of theater involved in wielding a giant wooden mallet. “We could argue that my single greatest contribution to the global cocktail movement, whether people believe it or not, is the revival of the Lewis bag and mallet, which I’ve been doing for 20 years now,” says McMillian.After packing the cup with enough crushed ice to form a little mound rising above the top of the tin, he then pours in two to four ounces (depending on the tin in question), of Maker’s Mark bourbon, which he favors for its caramel and vanilla notes, which complement the mint rather than overpower it. He then tops off the drink with a half-ounce to three quarters of an ounce of simple syrup. While McMillian has experimented with building layers of powdered sugar and ice throughout the drink as well as using the syrup during the muddling phase, but finds that this method allows the syrup to trickle slowly through the ice for more even distribution.
He then adds a small cap of crushed ice to account for the loss caused by the room temperature bourbon and simple syrup, and garnishes the whole thing with one or two fresh mint sprigs before serving the final drink with a straw. The Mint Julep comes on strong at first, but it’s meant to reveal itself over the course of drinking it.
“The beauty and charm of the Mint Julep is that it’s an evolutionary experience,” says McMillian. “While often, when you start the drink, you may wonder if you’ve gotten yourself in over your head, but if you enjoy it at a leisurely pace you will find that every sip is different than the one that precedes it. That’s a wonderful quality in a drink.”
Classic Mint Julep
- 2 oz high-proof bourbon
- .5 oz simple syrup
- 6 fresh mint leaves
- Crushed ice
Place mint and simple syrup in Tom Collins glass. Muddle the mint in the glass to express the essential oils. Add hand crushed ice to glass and top with bourbon. Toss glass a few time with mixing glass to mix cocktail. Top off with more crushed ice and straw then Garnish with more mint.
As always I am open to hear your take and your input. You can reach me at [email protected]