Mint Julep Cocktail

This weekend marks the first weekend in May, which means it’s time for the Kentucky Derby. It’s also time for mint julep cocktails (and women wearing big hats). This year, nearly 120,000 mint juleps will be served at the Kentucky Derby.

This weekend marks the 140th edition of “The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports." The mint julep has been the traditional drink of the Derby since 1938. And for over 26 years, Early Times Whiskey has been used in the “official mint julep of the Kentucky Derby." If you happen to be at the Derby this year and are looking to spend a little money (as if losing money on a horse isn’t enough) pick up a $1,000 Woodford Reserve Mint Julep.

Woodford Reserve is the official bourbon of the Derby and for nine years has been making a special mint julep served in a commemorative silver cup. Inside the cup you’ll find Woodford Reserve Distiller’s Select (their normal bourbon), ice infused with rose water, mint julep simple syrup and candied rose petals made by Bourbon Barrel Foods. If that doesn’t sound like $1,000 well spent I don’t know what does. And if you’re looking to spend more money, get the $2,000 cup that’s gold instead of silver. Proceeds from both cups benefit Old Friends Thoroughbred Retirement Center.

The History

The word “julep” dates back to ancient times. One of the first printed occurrences of the mint julep was recorded by the Society for Promoting Medical Knowledge in 1784, where it’s referred to as medicinal help. “Sickness at the stomach, with frequent retching, and, at times, a difficulty of swallowing. I then prescribed her an emetic, some opening powders, and a mint julep." That’s my kind of doctor.

In 1803, a British man named John Davis spent time traveling the United States and described the mint julep in his memoir as “a dram of spirituous liquor that has mint steeped in it, taken by Virginians of morning.” Oh those naughty Virginians.

One of the earlier Mint Julep recipes to be found in print is in Jerry Thomas’ Bartenders Guide (1887). He advocates using brandy instead of whiskey and doesn’t mention the julep cup we have grown accustomed to seeing today. I prefer a classic mint julep recipe that hasn’t been changed much in the last century.

The Recipe

  • 6–7 fresh mint leaves
  • 1/2 ounces simple syrup
  • 2 1/2 ounces bourbon
  • Crushed ice

Glass: silver julep cup
Garnish with mint sprigs

Add fresh mint leaves and simple syrup into a julep cup. Muddle gently. Add the bourbon. Crush ice and fill the cup loosely to the top. Stir the drink well until the outside of the cup frosts. Fill the remainder of the cup with crushed ice, creating a small pile on top. Garnish the drink with a few mint sprigs. Insert straws right next to the mint sprigs to get all the aroma from the sprigs as you drink.

The Execution

  • While this drink could technically be made in any glass, the silver or pewter cup really works best.
  • The “proper” way to hold the mint julep cup (so you don't melt the frost on the outside) is to place your thumb on the top of the cup and your other four fingers on the base.
  • Muddling mint too hard breaks the veins, releasing chlorophyll, which is bitter.
  • To crush the ice use a food processor or buy an old fashioned Lewis ice bag. The bag is canvas, which wicks away moisture from the melted ice as you beat the heck out of it with a mallet or your muddler.
  • Before you stick the mint in the ice as a garnish, place it in the palm of your hand and give it a good slap, it opens up more wonderful mint aromas.

Try not to lose too much money on the Derby this weekend and enjoy slowly sipping on a few mint juleps.