Untangling the Complex History of One of America's Most Popular Cocktails—The Mint Julep

Millions of Mint Juleps are likely consumed across America on Kentucky Derby weekend. This is the totally unexpected story of the classic cocktail.

Mint julep
Photo: Brent Hofacker / Getty Images

The Kentucky Derby is just a few weeks away, which means that a great swath of the American population will be donning elaborate hats and brightly patterned bowties, and imbibing their body weight in Mint Juleps for most of the day on May 7th.

The first time I attended the Derby, I was amazed by how early in the day that totemic cocktail was mixed—the big race isn't until late in the afternoon, which meant that attendees had ample opportunity to consume more than their fair share of them. I still wonder how anyone was standing by the time Steve Buttleman called the horses to post on his bugle: According to the Kentucky Derby's website, between the Kentucky Oaks (held the day before the big race) and the Derby itself, nearly 120,000 Mint Juleps are consumed on-site.

It's difficult to think of another cocktail that's as intimately tied to a particular event as the Mint Julep is to the Kentucky Derby. Interestingly enough, however, its origins aren't in Kentucky at all, but rather, linguistically at least, in the Middle East. "The Julep's origin and first mentions are in European medicine, which included sugar mixed with herbs, spices, and often, a spirit," explained Jason Foust, Central Regional Ambassador for Angel's Envy. "This made its way to the U.S. and became the first real notable American cocktail. The part of the country you lived in influenced which spirit was used, but the earliest versions included brandy / cognac or rum, and many early versions didn't include mint. It's the first popular cocktail served with ice, as it coincided with the rise of ice houses and the ability to use ice as a 'garnish' in a drink. Some versions included using hailstones and ice from frozen lakes. Ice was still sold in blocks, so bars were equipped with a canvas bag and mallet to crush ice for the Julep." He continued, "This cocktail has origins back to the late 1700s, and 'Julep' is based on an Arabic word meaning 'rosewater' that connects its European medicinal roots. The julep became a Kentucky staple simply by coincidence, with a natural 'southern' connection between the cocktail and horse racing."

According to John Douglass, Beverage Director at the Kitchen Table, the restaurant located on the campus of James B. Beam Distilling Co., "The who and when of cocktail creation is rather muddy for most of the pre-Prohibition classics, and the Julep is no exception. It is a likely descendent of the Sling. The cocktail historian David Wondrich dates references to medicinal Juleps back to the year 900 and finds mention of them throughout the centuries that follow."

Like so much in the world of cocktails, stories both verifiable and apocryphal dot the boozy landscape, so pinning down the exact lineage of the Mint Julep can be tricky. Still, certain threads appear in most accounts of its evolution.

Author and cocktail consultant Dale DeGroff sang the praises of the book "Imbibe," by David Wondrich, which "lay[s] out the amazing story of the Julep. You will experience the Mint Julep as the jewel in the center of the patchwork quilt that is the story of the American Cocktail. You will meet the first Europeans to experience and write about the Mint Julep and learn about the early 19th-century bartenders who presided over the marriage of the Julep with ice, and discovered a miraculous cure for the relentless heat of the dog days of American summer, whether in the north or the south," DeGroff explained in an email. "The Julep was more popular in the bars of NYC than in the south, albeit sometimes served…in a whiskey glass with a bit less ceremony, as the Whiskey Smash."

One of my favorite observations comes from Chris Morris, Master Distiller at Woodford Reserve, who notes that, "The Mint Julep has a long history, and in the 1800s it was considered a morning drink. People working on horse farms or in the horse-racing industry during this time period may wake up with aches and pains. You didn't have aspirin and other pain medication in those days, so you would make a Mint Julep; bourbon to soothe your aches and pains, sugar to give you some energy, and mint to help open the eyes!"

If you've ever been to Churchill Downs for the Derby, that proud tradition of enjoying a Julep as a morning drink is alive and well…though my personal experience is that it's less about soothing the aches and pains of the day before than causing them for the following morning when consumed in volume.

Like any cocktail with a long history and a broad fan base, there are countless variations of the Mint Julep, and a fairly recent history of its elevation to the upper echelons of the cocktail canon. "Prior to the late-1990s, the Mint Julep had become something of a joke. It was something one drank only on Derby Day almost as a requirement," Morris explained. "Outside of Kentucky, you would rarely find a bar that served Mint Juleps. This began to change when Woodford Reserve was named 'The Official Bourbon of the Kentucky Derby' in 1999. As part of our Derby activities, I began to conduct seminars on how to make a proper Mint Julep using Woodford Reserve. This slowly began to change the prevailing attitude that the Julep was too sweet and too minty. Soon, I was making Mint Juleps on national television and consumers across the country began to make them at home during their Derby parties. The introduction of the Woodford Reserve $1,000 Mint Julep program in 2005, with its exotic ingredients and charitable aspect, took interest in the Mint Julep to new heights. Woodford Reserve introduced the concept of Mint Julep innovation that now can be seen in bars and restaurants across the globe. Now the Mint Julep is a standard cocktail offering in many fine establishments around the world."

If you'll be making it at home, don't hesitate to customize your Julep. "Many variants have surfaced throughout the cocktail movement, but the core structure of the drink (sugar, spirit, mint, and crushed ice) has stayed consistent, including the use of bourbon. The most common twist on a Julep is the addition of seasonal fruit—most commonly fresh mixed berries, either muddled or as a syrup—which are another popular variant in how Juleps are still made," noted Foust. Just make sure, he continued, to "Care for the mint and pay attention to balance. You want to add sugar syrup to a Julep cup, 3-4 mint leaves, and just press the mint leaves to release those oils. Crushing or pulverizing the mint will release too much oil and create a bitter taste. It's also a very delicate drink in terms of balance; you want lots of crushed ice—similar to those images of Juleps with the dome of ice on the top of the glass. Because of the nature of this drink, a standard-proof bourbon is best. If you prefer to drink your spirits neat and have a bit of a sweet tooth, just use a higher-proof spirit along with the sugar!"

Morris customizes his through different versions of key ingredients. "I like Juleps that explore the use of different types of mint, like chocolate mint, pineapple mint, and lemon mint, as well as non-traditional sweeteners," he explained. "Try sweetening your Julep with a honey simple syrup, or one made with sorghum. I have also used homemade nut orgeats as well."

If you're making them for guests, his advice in that regards is sound, too: "First of all, always make each Julep fresh, one at a time. Ask your guest how sweet or minty they like their Julep because one size does not fit all. My best tips for making a Mint Julep at home are to have plenty of crushed ice, fresh mint, and a good quality simple syrup. My suggestion is to rub your glass with the mint leaves, add, 2 oz. of Woodford Reserve Bourbon, and a splash of simple syrup. Then fill with crushed ice and stir. Next, add your sprig of mint as a garnish and top with more crushed ice. Don't forget the sipping straw! You drink a Julep from the bottom up so don't try to sip it like a standard drink—always use a cocktail straw."

Just make sure you use good bourbon. And wearing an elaborate hat or bowtie while building the cocktail always makes it better.

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