There are only a few drinks that capture the essence of the Southern United States: sweet tea, the Sazerac, and the Mint Julep. The ritual of preparing and consuming the Mint Julep is built into the drink itself. Drinking a Mint Julep is the diametric opposite of pounding a line of Jager Bombs at the bar. The julep is a sippin’ drink, and of course, it is the official drink of the Kentucky Derby, but much more on that in a minute.
- 3 oz Kentucky bourbon
- 10–12 fresh mint leaves
- 2 tsp sugar
- Crushed ice
- Mint sprigs
In a chilled short glass, or the traditional silver or stainless steel julep cup, gently muddle half the bourbon, sugar and mint leaves. Add the crushed ice. Pour the remaining bourbon on top, and top with fresh mint sprigs. Serve with short straws, so that you smell the mint sprigs when consuming it. Sip the Mint Julep slowly, so that the oils of the mint infuse with the bourbon.
The Mint Julep is traditionally served in a silver and pewter cup, chilled so that frost forms on the outside of the cup. The fresh mint, bourbon, and sugar infuse with the crushed ice as it melts. The ritual of preparing a Mint Julep is as much a part of the drink as consuming it; most people say one julep should last about twenty minutes.
History of the Mint Julep
The Mint Julep has a long and winding road to its present incarnation. The word julep comes from the Arabic words, julab and Golâb, which mean “rose water”. This early julep referred to a sweet medicinal drink. As the drink migrated towards the Mediterranean, mint was introduced to the drink. A non-alcoholic version of the mint julep appeared in 1400s England. Somewhere in the 1700s, rum, gin, whiskey, and brandy started making an appearance in juleps. Both Kentucky and Virginia seem to have been the birthplaces of the proto-Mint Julep, as this was the drink of choice in both areas in the late 1700s.
In 1803, Londoner John Davis mentioned the Mint Julep in print for the first time. A decade later, the Old White Tavern in West Virginia (now the Greenbrier Hotel) became famous for their own Mint Julep recipe. During the Civil War, bourbon became a common substitute for other liquors in the Mint Julep, due to its lower cost.
Churchill Downs has been building the mint julep since 1875, but it was in 1938 that the iconic drink became associated with the Kentucky Derby. The racetrack began selling the silver souvenir glasses for 25 cents extra, because so many people were stealing them. Today, Churchill Downs sells about 120,000 mint juleps on Derby Weekend (Oaks Day and Derby Day) alone. Interestingly enough, Louisville locals only drink Mint Juleps on these two days, and the rest of the year, the demand (mostly tourists) decreases dramatically. Since 2006, the Kentucky Derby has sold $1000 Mint Juleps, made with ultra-premium ingredients, and served in gold-plated cups with silver straws, with the proceeds going to charities benefitting retired racehorses.