Mint Juleps & The Kentucky Derby
The Mint Julep: Born In The South, Thriving At The Derby
Since 1938, the mint julep has been the official drink of the Kentucky Derby, and it’s hard to imagine a cocktail more
quintessentially Southern. A combination of sugar, bourbon, crushed ice and mint, this refreshing drink conjures up images of a bygone genteel era. There are over 120,000 of these drinks served at the race each year, and even people at home get in the spirit of the event by mixing their own.
What you may not know, however, is that the history of the mint julep stretches far beyond the Derby, and the drink we all know and love has changed quite a lot over the years.
Early History of the Mint Julep
The mint julep has a history steeped in legend, with multiple origin stories told and believed throughout the region. Some fanciful tales suggest that the drink was developed when a Kentuckian, boating across the Mississippi, plucked fresh mint leaves growing wild on the banks and topped his bourbon with them.
According to some sources, the mint julep dates back to the 1830s, where it was originally mixed as a toddy. Toddies acted as health tonics in the days before painkillers and antibiotics, and many cocktails have their origins in these medicinal beverages.
The original mint julep was likely made with brandy, not bourbon, and consumed throughout the South. However, brandy shortages in the mid 1830s made it necessary to change liquors, and the widely available Kentucky bourbon became an easy substitute.
It would take about a century for the modern mint julep to be developed, however. The cocktail world, freshly invigorated by the widespread availability of ice, was eager for a refreshing beverage. The mint julep, with its bright flavor and deep Southern roots, perfectly fit the bill.
The Mint Julep and the Kentucky Derby
The mint julep came to be associated with the Kentucky Derby thanks in large part to the writings of Irvin S. Cobb. The humorist wrote often and fondly about the race, and was also well known for his writings about liquor. As a Kentucky native, Cobb knew a lot about the local bourbon and whiskey, and wrote a book of cocktails called Irvin S. Cobb’s Own Recipe Book.
This book, in addition to providing a recipe for the mint julep and many other drinks, painted a wonderfully pastoral image of Kentucky that resonates today with the heart and soul of the Derby. It’s little wonder that, inspired by the image of gentlemen and fine ladies sipping at the refreshing drink on warm summer days, Churchill Downs would name the mint julep the official drink of the Kentucky Derby. No other drink could ever feel so authentically Kentuckian.
Ways to Enjoy a Mint Julep
The proper way to mix a mint julep is a matter of some debate among Southern cocktail lovers, with many opinions on all sides. There are only a few elements that everyone can agree upon: The drink is served over crushed ice, it includes both mint and sweetener, and it is made with Kentucky whiskey or bourbon.
Outside of these basic principles, numerous variations exist. Some incorporate additional flavorings like nutmeg or fresh fruit slices. Some mixologists will use mint-infused simple syrup whereas others will muddle fresh mint with sugar and water at the bottom of the glass.
The authentic Kentucky Derby mint julep recipe uses Old Forester Straight Bourbon Whiskey. To make it at home, first create a simple syrup by boiling together equal parts water and sugar. Remove from heat and add several fresh mint leaves. Cover and leave to cool overnight in the refrigerator. To mix the drink, add one tablespoon of mint syrup and two ounces of whiskey to a cup filled with ice, stirring rapidly to combine.
For mixing, any glass might do, but the truly authentic cocktail aficionados will insist on a mint julep cup. These stainless steel vessels are designed to frost immediately when the icy drink is stirred within. Drink with a straw, holding the cup by its rim to prevent the frosted exterior from melting over your hand!
Whether you choose to follow a traditional mint julep recipe or want to experiment with your own unique spin on the classic, there is no better way to celebrate the first race of the Triple Crown than with the bright, refreshing flavor of a Southern mint julep.