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The Mint Julep
Refreshing Cold Mint Julep for the Derby

The Mint Julep is deeply connected to the Kentucky Derby. But it’s also an excellent cocktail with a profound history.

No drink comes in as strong and leaves as swiftly as the mint julep. It takes over the minds and liquor cabinets of Americans for a few precious days in May, and just as soon as we remembered the drink existed, we forget about it for another year.

Much like horse racing itself, most Americans don’t really think about the mint julep outside of the Kentucky Derby. But for that first Saturday in May, they’re both national obsessions, linked closer than any sporting event and cocktail in the world.

So how did this drink that’s little more than sugar, mint, and bourbon become the official drink of the first Saturday in May? Like so many great intoxicants, it started as a medicine.

Cough Syrup Becomes a Cocktail

“Between the 1700s and 1900s, whiskey was a medicine,” says bourbon historian Fred Minnick, who for a time served as the official bourbon authority for the Kentucky Derby Museum. “The very early references to juleps were as a way of getting people to take their medicine.”   

Because mint is so abundant in Kentucky, as sugar is the lifeblood of the American south, the mint julep became sort of like a cough syrup of today. “The whiskey back then, it needed help. It wasn’t necessarily something you’d want to drink out of the bottle,” Minnick continues. “People would often add sugar and water, and then they’d add mint and a lot of things to make it less hideous.”

Around the middle of the 19th century, horsemen in Kentucky began starting their mornings with a drink, much like we might with a Bloody Mary or mimosa today. “It was hot and humid in Kentucky, and they’d want something refreshing, but at the same time they also liked their whiskey,” says Peggy Noe Stevens, a Master Bourbon Taster and inductee to the Bourbon Hall of Fame. “Sugar was in everybody’s cupboard, and at the racetrack ice was such an easy thing to come by, in the stalls they’d have these big blocks of ice. And mint is abundant in Kentucky, so you were able to clip a little mint, chip away at the ice block, and make a palatable, refreshing drink.”

The Mint Julep Goes to the Races

the mint julep

Traditionally, mint juleps were served in silver cups, a tribute to the cups given around the state as prizes at county fairs. But it would be 1938 before the mint julep cemented itself in Kentucky horse racing lore with its trademark commemorative cups.

That year, Churchill Downs sold the drinks for 38 cents apiece in special Kentucky Derby glasses. They proved so popular, the racetrack couldn’t keep them in stock, as guests several juleps deep would take them home as souvenirs. Churchill Downs subsequently raised the price 25 cents for anyone who wanted to keep the glass.

Today, over half a million of those glasses are produced every year, served at racetracks around America on Derby Day. They’ve become as much a part of the race-watching experience as big hats and losing bets, and any self-respecting horse player has at least a few of them sitting around his bar.

How to Make the Ultimate Mint Julep

Mint juleps always start with the ice. Because horsemen of old couldn’t exactly walk over to the ice maker and pull out a perfect cube, they had to chip and shave ice off of blocks for their mint juleps. Minnick advises using ice somewhere between sno-cone and Sonic soda size to best fit the tradition.

Next, you need to pick your bourbon, and how you do this depends greatly on how many you plan to have. “Because the Derby is such a long day, I try and keep a lower proof bourbon for my juleps,” says Stevens. “It doesn’t have to be one you’re not a fan of—but if you’re out there for hours on end, you kinda want to be able to graze with the horses.”

Minnick, on the other hand, takes less of a binge-drinking philosophy and looks more at flavor. “The bourbon has to be at least 94 proof, or else it gets lost in the ice,” he says. “That ice will melt and overpower the whiskey very quickly, so you need something with some backbone. I like about a 107 (proof), but Wild Turkey 101 is a happy medium.”

Once you’ve selected your bourbon, grab your mint. Make sure to slap or lightly bruise it, but under no circumstances should you muddle it. Mint stems hold oils that’ll make your drink taste like toothpaste, and muddling releases them all.

Place the bruised mint in a glass, then top it with sugar or simple syrup and lightly mix them together. Add your bourbon, then fill the cup with ice. Stir the drink until the outside begins to frost, then insert a short straw and a mint garnish. Voila! You’re ready for Derby Day.

Final Thoughts on the Mint Julep

Enjoy it while you can, because even in Louisville, once the Derby is over so is mint julep madness. By summer, locals are back to their Old Fashioneds and bourbons on the rocks, and the mint julep is retired until next season. America’s greatest race and its corresponding cocktail return to the back of our collective consciousness until that magical first Saturday in May. With little to remind us of them but a commemorative glass and a pile of losing bet slips.

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