The Kentucky Derby is rife with tradition — the roses, the hats, the high-rolling bettors and B-list celebs.
But no tradition is more ingrained than the mint julep, which is a must for the first Saturday in May, whether you are at Churchill Downs or hosting a watch-party.
They are simple to make, with only five ingredients: bourbon, sugar, mint, ice and water. (Six if you count the silver cup, which many consider integral.)
But it’s hard to make a julep taste really good.
“The pageantry of making a mint julep is great,” said Chris Morris, master distiller at Woodford Reserve, who will make more than 100 at the Kentucky Derby for those who are lucky enough to buy the annual Woodford Reserve $1,000 Mint Julep. “What drink is served in a more appealing way than the mint julep? It has pageantry of the Derby, Kentucky in the spring, sprigs of fresh mint … it’s all show.”
The julep is a very old drink. The origin of the word appears to be the Persian gulab, which means rosewater, according to The Kentucky Mint Julep by Colonel Joe Nickell. Originally, the julep was a medicinal drink, which makes sense because distilled rosewater was often a base for many home remedies from ancient times. Mint also has been known as a medicinal herb for millennia, particularly used to treat stomach ailments.
Combined with sweetened syrup, used to make bitter or bad-tasting things palatable, you have the early American version of a health drink, albeit a boozy one.
British traveler and tutor John Davis, in his 1803 narrative Travels of Four Years and a Half in the United States of America, explained the julep as “a dram of spirituous liquor that has mint steeped in it, taken by Virginians of a morning.”
But the spirit wasn’t always bourbon. Gin juleps were quite popular, too, as well as those made with brandy.
The mint in the bourbon-based julep might have served another purpose: disguising bad whiskey. Before standards were established by President William Howard Taft in December 1909, whiskey was often “rectified” with everything from burnt sugar and prune juice to creosote and cochineal (yes, the crushed, dried bodies of insects).
So you can see why the mint had to be there.
Morris has a theory about how the drink came to be synonymous with racing.
“The two things our ancestors brought with them to Kentucky were their stills and their horses,” he said. “When we have the early get togethers … what do people come with? Their whiskey and their horses. They are drinking and racing. … Very early on bourbon and horse racing are connected as a social intercourse. The first mention of julep cup being awarded as a racing trophy was in 1816, somewhere in the Lexington area.”
The association with the Kentucky Derby also appears to date from the very beginning. According to Nickell, the clubhouse at Churchill Downs served mint juleps — and many other drinks, presumably — at the very first Derby on May 17, 1875. By 1938, it had become synonymous with the Derby, and Churchill made it the signature drink and began selling them in commemorative glasses.
Today, about 120,000 mint juleps will be sold at Churchill over the two days of the Kentucky Oaks and Derby. But don’t imagine armies of bartenders muddling mint and crushing ice: Churchill uses 10,000 bottles of Old Forester Mint Julep, a ready-to-serve cocktail, plus 1,000 pounds of fresh mint for garnish and 60,000 pounds of ice.
The keys to making a good mint julep, according to modern bartenders:
▪ Good bourbon. You can make it with bottom-shelf stuff, but you’ll taste the difference.
▪ Fresh mint. Spearmint, not peppermint.
▪ Lots of crushed ice. Nothing is less appealing than a watery, warm mint julep.
▪ A chilled glass. If you are lucky enough to have a silver julep cup, then the ice will frost the outside nicely. But any chilled glass can work.
“You have to know the way to balance the drink,” Morris said. “It’s easy to go too minty or too sweet.”
He recommends asking your guests how they like their juleps and tailoring them according to taste and the bourbon you are using. Some are sweeter or mintier than others already.
“Make your mint julep fresh,” he said. Don’t pre-make them and keep on ice. It just won’t taste as good, he said.
Many bartenders recommend making a simple syrup, and some even steep the mint in the syrup to infuse it with a nice mint flavor.
Another option: use a diluted sorghum syrup instead of sugar syrup. Sorghum has a deeper, richer flavor that really marries well with bourbon.
If you want to serve juleps but don’t want to make them, try the bottled version. Morris recommended that you wait until you’re ready to serve your julep to pour it; even a pre-mixed one tastes better served icy cold with fresh mint.
And if you or your guests really just don’t want a mint julep, there are plenty of other great options, including Robert Mondavi Private Selection Cabernet Sauvignon aged in bourbon barrels.
Or try the Kentucky Mule, made with mint, bourbon and ginger beer, or another bourbon cocktail such as the Sunday Sipper, made with lemon juice, bitters and Sweet Tea Syrup from Jack Rudy Cocktail Co., which is based in Lexington and Charleston, S.C.
From The Kentucky Bourbon Cocktail Book by Joy Perrine and Susan Reigler
1 ounce simple syrup
5-7 mint leaves (Kentucky Colonel variety if available)
3 ounces Kentucky bourbon
3 ounces water
Into a large mixing glass pour simple syrup, add mint and muddle well. Add bourbon and water. Fill with crushed ice or small ice cubes, and shake. Garnish with a large sprig of fresh mint and add a long straw. (A sterling silver julep cup is best. An official Kentucky Derby souvenir glass is next best. But any tall Collins-type glass will work.)
2 ounces Woodford Reserve bourbon
1/2 ounce fresh lime juice
Add the bourbon and lime juice to a copper Moscow Mule mug or a highball glass. Fill the mug or glass with ice and top with ginger beer. Add mint sprigs for garnish.
From Taylor Huber of Jack Rudy Cocktail Co.
2 ounces bourbon
1 ounce Jack Rudy Sweet Tea Syrup
1/2 ounce lemon juice
2 dashes angostura bitters
Mix, pour over ice in a Collins glass and top with soda water.
Woodford Reserve 2016 Kentucky Derby Mint Julep
2 ounces Woodford Reserve Distiller’s Select
3/4 ounce toasted pecan orgeat syrup*
Caramelized pecan crumbles for garnish
Edible copper flakes
Rub fresh mint around julep cup. Combine ingredients with crushed ice and swizzle in glass. Add more crushed ice, garnish with mint, pecan crumbles and copper flakes.
*To make toasted pecan orgeat, toast pecans, then mix or muddle into small pieces and simmer on low heat to create a nut milk. Fine strain or use a nut milk bag to remove nut pieces, and add equal parts sugar to liquid.