Food & Drink

No matter the julep variation, each one's in mint condition

Clockwise from bottom right,  bourbon mint slushie,  mint julep, bourbon mint punch and mint smoothie provide a variation on the traditional mint julep drink. Photo by Ron Garrison | Staff
Clockwise from bottom right, bourbon mint slushie, mint julep, bourbon mint punch and mint smoothie provide a variation on the traditional mint julep drink. Photo by Ron Garrison | Staff Herald-Leader

The mint julep — the official drink of the Kentucky Derby — is not on everybody's list of favorite libations. (Although many mint julep fans say they get better after the third or fourth one.) Yet, about 120,000 mint juleps are served at Churchill Downs during the Kentucky Oaks and Kentucky Derby.

Drinking a mint julep, whether you like it or not, is part of Derby Day tradition.

Legend, according to Kentucky Hospitality, a 200-Year Tradition, is that a boatman concocted the first julep when he left the Mississippi River in search of spring water to mix with his bourbon and, on a whim, added some of the mint growing beside the spring. The actual date of invention is unknown, but the drink was adopted by genteel Kentucky society during the 19th century.

The julep is a concoction of bourbon, water, sugar and mint. Creative bartenders add flavors and ingredients, but many people think it's not a mint julep if you tinker with the recipe.

For this year's Derby party, we suggest you fill those silver julep cups with something else. Some might even say with something a little tastier. We've selected three alternative Kentucky recipes that you might want to serve.


This recipe for bourbon mint punch is from A Feast for the Eyes: Recipes From America's Grandest Victorian Neighborhood by David Domine of Louisville. Recipes are from residents of the historic preservation district known as Old Louisville. Todd McGill, who lives in St. James Flats, said this is a family recipe adapted from the traditional mint julep.

Bourbon mint punch

1 quart cranberry juice

1 quart pineapple juice

1 cup orange juice

½ cup lemon juice

1 cup bourbon

2 bottles (12 ounces each) ginger ale, chilled

4 mint leaves, torn

In a large punch bowl, combine cranberry, pineapple, orange and lemon juices, and bourbon. Refrigerate until well chilled. Add ginger ale and mint immediately before serving. Makes 20 servings.

Maggie Green, author of The Kentucky Fresh Cookbook, makes a not-too-sweet variation of a bourbon slushie, using mint, strong iced tea, lemonade and bourbon.

Bourbon mint slushies

6 cups water

3 family-size tea bags

½ cup sugar

2 ounces fresh mint

1 can (12 ounces) frozen lemonade concentrate, thawed

2 cups Kentucky bourbon

In a saucepan, bring water to a boil. Add tea bags, sugar and mint, and stir until sugar is dissolved. Let tea syrup steep for 15 minutes. Remove tea bags and let mint continue to steep in syrup until cool. Remove mint. In a large freezer-safe container, mix tea syrup, lemonade concentrate and bourbon. Freeze at least 24 hours. To serve, scrape a portion of the slushie into a julep cup or wine glass. Garnish with a sprig of fresh mint, and add a straw for sipping. Makes 12 servings.

This recipe is adapted from two recipes by Sandra Davis of Springfield. They are in her cookbook, That Special Touch.

Mint julep smoothie

1 can (13 ounces) evaporated milk

1 cup French vanilla ice cream, softened

1/2 cup Maker's Mark bourbon

3 sprigs fresh mint

Combine all ingredients in a blender and process just until smooth. Pour into a silver julep cup and garnish with a sprig of fresh mint. Makes 2 to 3 servings.

This is the recipe served at Churchill Downs.

The Early Times mint julep

2 cups sugar

2 cups water

Sprigs of fresh mint

Crushed ice

Early Times Kentucky bourbon

Make a simple syrup by boiling sugar and water together for five minutes. Cool and place in a covered container with six or eight sprigs of fresh mint, then refrigerate overnight. Make one julep at a time by filling a julep cup with crushed ice, adding one tablespoon mint syrup and two ounces bourbon. Stir rapidly with a spoon to frost outside of cup. Garnish with a sprig of fresh mint.

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