It is the very dream of drinks, the vision of sweet quaffings. The Bourbon and the mint are lovers. In the same land they live, on the same food they are fostered. The mint dips its infant leaf into the same stream that makes the bourbon what it is. The corn grows in the level lands through which small streams meander. By the brook-side the mint grows. As the little wavelets pass, they glide up to kiss the feet of the growing mint, the mint bends to salute them. Gracious and kind it is, living only for the sake of others. The crushing of it only makes its sweetness more apparent. Like a woman’s heart, it gives its sweetest aroma when bruised. Among the first to greet the spring, it comes. Beside the gurgling brooks that make music in the pastures it lives and thrives. – J. Soule Smith, The Mint Julep: The Very Dream of Drinks, 1949
No Kentucky Derby would be complete without the venerable Mint Julep. So much so that the drink is inexorably linked to Derby and Kentucky bourbon. What are the facts?
Chris Morris from Woodford Reserve Bourbon says, “Centuries ago, there was an Arabic drink called gulab or julab, made with water and rose petals. The beverage had a delicate and refreshing scent that people thought would instantly enhance the quality of their lives.” When the gulab was introduced to the Mediterranean region, the native population replaced the rose petals with mint, a plant indigenous to the area. The “mint julep” grew in popularity throughout Europe, and eventually to the US where it’s popularity came to rest in the agricultural regions of the east and southeast.
Morris says the julep was originally a morning drink for the farmers, a spirited equivalent of coffee in today’s society. “One sip and Pow! The farmers were ready to face the long day.” Mint Julep first appeared in print in 1803 described as a “dram of spirituous liquor that has mint in it, taken by Virginians in the morning.”
Mint Juleps were initially mixed with rye whiskey, rum, or any other available spirits. Bourbon, the uniquely Kentucky blend of whiskey, was naturally the chosen alcohol to grab for one’s Mint Julep and the beverage rapidly became very popular. It has been the traditional beverage of Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby for nearly a century, according to the Derby Museum, when they started to serve the drink in souvenir glasses for 75 cents in 1938.
As early as 1816, silver julep cups were offered as prizes at Kentucky county fairs, early evidence of the state’s association with the famous cocktail. The sleek and classic design associated with the silver cup is accredited to early master silver smiths Asa Blanchard of Lexington and brothers William and Archibald Cooper of Louisville. There are two main styles of julep cups: one with a beaded rim and the other showcasing bands at the top.
In a 1908 Chicago Tribune article about the mint julep, Lexington’s Samuel Judson told the reporter:
“Take a silver cup—always a silver cup. Fill it with ice pulverized to the fineness of snow. Bruise one tender little leaf of mint and stick it in the ice. Then dissolve a spoonful of sugar in about three-quarters of a Kentucky drink of good whisky and let the fluid filter through the ice to the bottom of the cup. Shake the cup slowly until a coating of a thick white frost forms on the outside. Trim with mint and hand to an appreciative gentleman.”
Each year, almost 120,000 Mint Juleps are served over the two-day period of Kentucky Oaks and Kentucky Derby weekend at Churchill Downs Racetrack. That’s a feat that requires more than 10,000 bottles of bourbon, 1,000 pounds of freshly harvested mint, and 60,000 pounds of ice. Recipes do vary somewhat, but the one below is the official Kentucky Derby recipe for this year.
- 2 cups sugar
- 2 cups water
- Sprigs of fresh mint
- Crushed ice
- Old Forester Kentucky Bourbon
- Silver Julep Cups
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 of Old Forester Kentucky Bourbon. Stir rapidly with a spoon to frost the outside of the cup. Garnish with a sprig of fresh mint.
Of course, not everyone likes mint, and being smack in the middle of bourbon territory, there are several other alternatives for a proper Derby Party! This is the official page if you aren’t a mint-y or bourbon fan: