Mint Julep is much more than a Kentucky Derby drink and comes with a very interesting – and probably the longest – history compared to any other cocktail. It is the most iconic drink that is consumed in copious amounts – on the first Saturday of May every year – to the thunderous sound of horses as they raced down the homestretch of Churchill Downs, competing to be the crowned winner of the annual Kentucky Derby.
What is a Mint Julep?
The Mint Julep is a mixed drink – or cocktail – which consists primarily of bourbon, water, sugar, fresh mint leaves, and shaved or crushed ice. This bourbon-based cocktail is associated with the cuisine of the Southern United States and the American South in general, and Kentucky Derby in particular.
Mint Julep: A Brief History
Lovers of Mint Julep have taken the time to delve deep to find out the origins of the word “Julep,” and it is alleged to have originated from the Middle East. Inhabitants of the area – which is around the eastern Mediterranean – would mix rose petals into their water to enhance its taste. The consumption of this mixture – known as “Julab” – became a tradition and was carried on for several years. And soon enough, rose-water was replaced with mint-water.
Fast forward to the United States of America in the 18th century, i.e., the 1700s. It is a typical American thing to always experiment with new concoctions with liquor, especially if the mixture tastes good with pure water. Thus, southerners proceeded to prepare a blend of mint and liquor – which was then called “Julep” – for no other reason than the fact that, well, most Americans struggle with foreign words.
It is alleged that the first mention of “Julep” was in a London book authored by John Davis dated 1803 and it was titled “Travels of Four Years and a Half in the United States of America.” In his book, John Davis described julep as “a dram of spirituous or alcoholic liquor with mint steeped in it and consumed by Virginians every morning” (paraphrased).
Davis continued on how he grew to fall in love with whiskey based on the simple fact that he could have it in Juleps. However, the author did not specify the type of whiskey he was referring to. Mint Juleps, however, like sours and can be made with various spirits.
But what is more interesting about the mention of this word “Julep” in the 1803 book was that it was until 1806 that the word “Cocktail” was mentioned for the first time. Nowadays, most whiskey or bourbon lovers refer to virtually anything that is mixed with liquor as a “cocktail,” back in the days, there were several categories of alcoholic drinks, and the cocktail was retained for a specific type.
Mint Julep eventually became a hit in several important places around the world and throughout history. This has resulted in a modern-day invention that many individuals use regularly.
Henry Clay, a Kentucky Senator – nicknamed the Great Compromiser – is credited with introducing Mint Julep to Washington DC. This was during the time of his stay at the illustrious Willard Hotel, and the incidence took place during a disagreement with a British naval hero about the perfect way of making a Mint Julep, right in the Round Robin Bar. Since Clay hailed from a bourbon country, he claimed that the best Mint Juleps are made with bourbon.
Mint Julep: Henry Clay’s Method of Preparation
The following (paraphrased) lines were obtained from the Kentucky senator’s dairy: “The fresh and tender mint leaves should be pressed – with the back of a silver spoon – against a coin-silver goblet. You should only bruise the mint leaves gently and then remove every one of them from the goblet.
Half fill the vessel with cracked ice and then pour sweet bourbon – which has undergone aging in charred, oaken barrels – from the jigger. Allow the liquor to slide slowly through the pieces of cracked ice.”
“Get another container and place granulated sugar in it. Then, mix the sugar with chilled limestone water to make a silvery mixture or paste that is as smooth as rare Egyptian oil, and decadent on top of the ice.”
“As beads of moisture appear on the burnished surface or exterior of the silver goblet, proceed to garnish its brim with choice sprigs of mint.”
Mint Julep: Marvin C. Stone’s Innovation
It is a widely held belief that the Julep also inspired at least one other person in the 1800s, a gentleman who was known by the names Marvin C. Stone. This gentleman was purportedly sitting outside somewhere in Washington DC, sipping a Mint Julep through a shaft of ryegrass which was the custom at the time.
Now, ryegrass has this awkward side effect of making most alcoholic beverages taste somewhat grassy, and this did not go down well with Marvin. Well, he decided to do something about it and made a bold attempt to change things up a bit by searching for a better way.
Marvin C. Stone got hold of a piece of paper and wrapped it around a pencil. This formed a tube of sorts which he glued, thus creating the first “straw” and the precursor of modern-day straws. Marvin went ahead to invent the machine which coated his invention with paraffin so that it can be used multiple times without becoming soggy. He ended up patenting his innovative creation sometime in 1886, all thanks to the Mint Julep.
Mint Julep: Its Rise in Popularity After Prohibition
The success of Julep was tarnished severely – just like many other things – by Prohibition, and when it ended, Bourbon soared dramatically in popularity. Many critics argue that this development would not have occurred if not for the unfortunate downfall of rye whiskey.
Soon enough, the Mint Julep regained its popularity among enthusiasts and was usually enjoyed at the track, especially on a hot day. But patrons started stealing the fancy Julep Cups, and this became a big problem.
However, when Churchill Downs got wise to this development, he ensured that all the metal Julep Cups were withdrawn and replaced them with collectible cups. During this period, Mint Juleps were sold for approximately 75 cents; this included the price of the collectible cup as well.
By 1938, Churchill Downs went ahead to name Mint Julep as the official drink of the Kentucky Derby, and that was how the drink was tied forever – and firmly rooted in Southern American culture – and to the legendary run for the roses.
Since then, and every year, nearly 120,000 Mint Juleps are served at Churchill Downs throughout the two days of the Kentucky Derby and the Kentucky Oaks, all in collectible cups or glasses. Churchill Downs allegedly goes through 60,000 pounds of ice, 1,000 pounds of freshly-harvested mint, and more than 10,000 bottles of Old Forester Mint Julep mix every year.
Mint Julep and the Contract Arrangement
There is a contract agreement between Churchill Downs and the Brown-Forman Corporation – which has lasted for over 18 years – in which the Early Times Mint Julep Cocktail was designated the “official Mint Julep of the Kentucky Derby,” even though the Early Times that is sold in the United States is not a bourbon but a Kentucky whiskey. This was due to the fact that it was aged in used or old, oaken barrels as against new, charred ones.
All the same, Old Forester – which is a product from Brown-Forman Corporation as well – replaced Early Times Mint Julep Cocktail in 2015, and became the “official drink of the Kentucky Derby” as it is sold as “Old Forester Mint Julep Ready-to-Serve Cocktail.”
Churchill Downs has also served – since 2006 – custom-made, extra-premium Mint Juleps at $1000 each at the Kentucky Derby. These Mint Juleps – which are usually served in gold-plated cups along with silver straws – were made from Woodford Reserve bourbon while the mint was imported from Ireland, sugar from Australia, and spring water ice cubes from the Bavarian Alps.
The proceeds from this developed are channeled towards supporting charitable causes that are dedicated to retired racehorses. Early Times, Old Forester, and Woodford Reserve are sister brands as they originate from the same source, i.e., Brown-Forman under the terms of the present-day marketing agreement with Churchill Downs. Woodford Reserve is known as the “official bourbon” of the Kentucky Derby.
Mint Julep: Do You Know You Can Try These?
Mint Julep was not always made with bourbon. In Maryland, it was served with rye whiskey while in Georgia, it was made with peach cognac. You can also create an outstanding one with mezcal or with rum and brandy. So, do not limit yourself to the use of Kentucky whiskey. Just make sure that you use the freshest mint at all times.
Why Do People Drink Mint Juleps at the Kentucky Derby?
It doesn’t matter whether you plan to enjoy the race live at Churchill Downs or just stay at home and watch it in your living room, one thread that passes through nearly all viewers that have attended this annual event is the sipping of a refreshing Mint Julep.
Mint Julep has been around for an incredibly long time, and legend even portrays it that the founder of the Kentucky Derby, Meriwether Lewis Clark, Jr. planted mint – for cocktails – back in 1875. However, as you learned earlier, the cocktail was made the official drink of the race in 1938. One thing is clear, however; drinking Mint Julep at the Kentucky Derby has become something of a tradition, and there is no sign that it is going away any time soon.
How to Choose the Best Bourbon for Your Mint Julep
Ruining a good cocktail with the wrong bourbon is a cardinal sin, and this is why this section is dedicated to helping you choose the best bourbon for your Mint Julep.
As you know by now, Mint Juleps represent the whole essence of Southern cocktails. All that is required for you to start enjoying the classic version of this cocktail are bourbon, fresh mint leaves, and simple syrup. You can even refrigerate your leftover simple syrup for about a week and use it for sweetening your iced teas.
Southerners are highly respected for their devotion to bourbon, the sweet syrupy golden-brown liquor, and many folks can even create several cocktails featuring this spirit. But every year, when the month of May rolls around and the time to plug into the events at Churchill Downs, only one mixed bourbon drink matters at this juncture: Mint Julep.
Mint Julep is a cocktail that deserves the right bourbon if you must enjoy it to the fullest. There are several options available out there, so how do you pick the best one for you? Although this decision ought to be left to your taste buds, you shouldn’t rely on them 100 percent. But the following tips should set you on the right path so that you can make the best choices.
Region of Origin
Tennessee whiskey is good, but it really does not come close to the perfection that Kentucky bourbon lends to the best cocktail that is enjoyed by hundreds of thousands of individuals at the state’s most celebrated event.
Kentucky is the home of over 20 fully-functional distilleries which produce more than 200 brands (collectively), from the famous Maker’s Mark to Knob Creek, the small batch favorites. So, if you want to enjoy your Mint Julep without any hiccups at all, the best way to do this is by making it with at least two parts Kentucky bourbon.
Mixing the best cocktails do not have to require the use of expensive bourbons. This is because it does not make any real difference, whether you make use of a top-shelf bourbon or its counterpart. And this is primarily because the other ingredients that make up a good Mint Julep – i.e., fresh mint leaves and sugar – can mask the subtle differences of top-shelf bourbon from the bottom shelf ones.
Prices indeed vary from one state to another as well as from one store to another, but generally, you should not spend more than $45 on alcohol that you are only going to stir or shake.
Of course, this is not to imply that you should go for bottom shelf bourbon as you may not get that well-crafted libation you desire. However, do your best to find a middle ground; a bourbon that is not expensive enough to make you break the bank, yet cheap enough to give you the best Mint Julep without sacrificing quality.
A cardinal rule that you can adopt is that anything you set your eyes on – at eye level – in a local liquor store is very likely going to bear a pocket-friendly price for mixing your cocktails.
More often than not, bourbons are rye based or wheat based. You won’t go wrong with either version, though you may have to contend with the slightly different flavors with each. Rye-based bourbons – such as Wild Turkey – are spicier while wheat-based bourbons – like Old Fitzgerald – are sweeter and smoother.
Others – such as Buffalo Trace – strike an excellent balance between the different flavors, thereby giving you the very best of both worlds. So, everything is all about preference. All that matters here is that you know what you are pouring into your Mint Julep cup.
Every bourbon lover knows that the longer the spirit ages, the richer – and more complex – the bourbon will taste. It is not a good idea to go for flavors that will be covered up by the many ingredients in your cocktail, and more aged bourbons can bring about such an outcome.
Therefore, stick to younger bourbons, i.e., those within the 5-year range – which may be somewhat lighter but will be the perfect summer alcoholic beverage for you.
Mint Julep: The Best Bourbon
Opinions vary when it comes to finding the best bourbon for your Mint Julep. There are several options out there, but if you read and follow the information supplied in the previous section, you will be able to make excellent choices as regards the type of bourbon to go for.
However, most folks who are pros at making and consuming Mint Juleps agree on one thing: Mint Juleps need bourbon with a good kick – i.e., 90 proof or even higher – to hold up to crushed or shaved ice, and a warm day. Therefore, the following are the top picks as recommended by pros:
Wild Turkey Bourbon 101 is a low-proof product which goes straightaway into the barrel for aging without any attempt to increase it. The low-entry proof of this sweet and vanilla-flavored spirit results in the squeezing out of more flavor from the mash, thereby giving this brew a notable flavor.
It should, therefore, come as no surprise when – after 8 years of aging in charred, new American oaken barrels located in Lawrence, Kentucky – Wild Turkey Bourbon 101 is obtained from the barrel at 109 proof (54.5 percent alcohol by volume) before it is proofed down a bit.
Old Forester Signature sort of replaces the flagship Old Forester classic bourbon and its proof is up to 100. This rich and spicy spirit is distilled at the Brown-Forman Distillery – which has been around since the 19th century, circa 1860 and was known as Early Times Distillery – in Shively, Kentucky. This was long before the first Kentucky Derby.
The name “Old Forester” was adopted in honor of a physician who used to prescribe the bourbon – for medicinal purposes – to his patients at a period when it was still sold in some pharmacies. This 100 Proof formula has chocolate and coffee on the nose which is followed closely by toasted oak and sweet apple on the palate.
Nevertheless, the signature for this brew gets its name – which is also displayed on every bottle – is George Garvin Brown, the founder of the brand. For those who are not interested in making their own Mint Julep, Old Forester also makes a premixed variety available for the public, and it comes in at precisely 60 proof.
Maker’s Mark is made of a wheated mash bill, giving it such a natural depth that perfectly complements the mint and sugar in Juleps. It is a blend of about 19 different barrels with varying ages and proofs, culminating in 113.2 proof (56.6 percent alcohol by volume) spirit which is bottled entirely in 375ml bottles. This vanilla and spicy-loaded spirit belongs to Batch No. 14-01 and is composed primarily of red winter wheat, Maker’s Mark corn, and barley mash bill.
As a full-bodied bourbon, the dark fruit and molasses flavors that come out can hold their own quite impressively, even after getting diluted with ice. All you need to do is to make sure that you have more than enough fresh mint leaves and an endless supply of this bourbon to enjoy yourself to the fullest.
Elijah Craig is purportedly the father of bourbon, and it is a pocket-friendly alcoholic beverage. The sweetness of the corn pairs exceptionally well with other ingredients that make up the brew.
One of the best ways of enjoying your drink is to make use of simple syrup over one cube of sugar in your Mint Julep. Everything blends into the mint and bourbon more thoroughly and topped with a lot of finely crushed ice, you will be on a refreshing journey to cloud nine.
The Yellowstone brand was established by Taylor & Williams in the 19th century, i.e., 1872 to be exact, and is named in honor of the national park. Since then, the brand has moved around over the years from one distillery to the other. The present owner of the brand, Luxco, sources bourbon from neighboring distilleries in Kentucky.
But lately, Luxco took a 50 percent stake in the Limestone Branch Distillery which is run by Paul and Steve Beam. In 2015, the Beams placed the first batch of their new bourbon in barrels for aging, and they have plans to release the spirit under the Yellowstone label.
The Select is a unique selection of casks which were chosen by Steve Beam himself to manifest the heritage of the Yellowstone name. This unique selection is made up of 4- and 7-year old, high-rye, and spicy bourbons.
This Kentucky Straight Bourbon is the first batch of the spirit – which was made in the New Riff Distillery. Although it was established in 2014, the distillery was patient enough to allow the distillery-made bourbon to age for 4 years. This full-bodied and spicy bottled-in-bond, the non-chill-filtered release is composed of a mash bill made up of 3 non-GMO grains comprising 65 percent corn, 30 percent rye, and 5 percent malted barley.
The vanilla and butterscotch notes in this brew pair excellently well with the sugar in the Mint Julep, and there is no need for you to worry that the ice will dilute the 100 proof spirit.
New Riff Kentucky Straight Bourbon was made available at the distillery in 2018 with a wide distribution in New York, Minnesota, Kentucky, New Jersey, Indiana, and Ohio.
Old Grand-Dad Bonded Bourbon is based on a high-rye formula that was made famous by Basil Hayden, whose picture is boldly printed on the label, and made by his grandson. This bottled-in-bond version – which implies that it was all distilled within the same calendar year – and allowed to age for a minimum of 4 years under strict government supervision. It is bottled at 100 proof (50 percent alcohol by volume).
Larceny is a brand extension of Old Fitzgerald’s line, Heaven Hills. According to the story about this development, John E. Fitzgerald, back in the day, used his influence and privilege of holding the keys to Pappy Van Winkle’s bonded warehouse. This was where the Old Fitzgerald bourbons were also kept, and his goal was to steal the best casks for himself. These casks were known as the “Fitzgerald Barrels.”
Larceny Kentucky Straight Bourbon is a wheat brew that is composed of a blend of select barrels which were made in honor of this legend. It is bottled at 92 proof (46 percent alcohol by volume) and bears no-age-statement.
The fruity and rich Stagg Jr. Barrel Proof Bourbon was first introduced in 2013 and is available uncut – i.e., no water added – and unfiltered like George T. Stagg, its “bourbon father.” Stagg Jr. Barrel Proof Bourbon is distilled at Buffalo Trace with each batch varying in both age and proof. But you should expect the bourbon to be about 8-9 years old with proofs that range in the 130+ area.
Stagg Jr. Barrel Proof Bourbon is much easier to find – and more affordable – than its predecessor.
Mitcher’s Single Barrel Straight Rye comes with vanilla flavor and a bit of softness from the corn taming things. The brew, which is perky with rye, has a soft, sweet spice that is overlaid with cooling ice and mint.
Koval is a brand that is renowned for its high-quality products – as well as the people behind it who are respected for their integrity – and is allegedly the first Chicago distillery that was established in the 1800s. The family-owned business employs organic processes as well as ingredients while micromanaging the entire distillation process, thereby showing their undiluted commitment to excellence and passion for quality.
Koval – which translates to “black sheep” – is a perception of others in the same industry that they have fully embraced.
Knob Creek 100 Proof has a sweet, oaky body and is nutty on the nose. This spirit is an excellent example of what you can enjoy when a brew comes in at 100 proof. The fruity sweetness on the front as well as on the back of the palate pairs remarkably well with the mint in your Julep. And as the Mint Julep melts a little bit, these flavors get better every step of the way.
This list will not be complete if the official bourbon of Churchill Downs where the annual race for 3-year old horses is held – known as Kentucky Derby – is not added. Woodford Reserve is carefully crafted by Chris Morris, a master distiller who works with a wide variety of flavors including mint. Every year, a custom label for the Derby is put out.
It is possible that the first time you heard about Barton 1792 Distillery was when a rickhouse collapsed or the massive mash spill accidents that occurred a few years ago. It is also possible that you may have known them long before these incidents.
However, what you may not know is that they produce an award-winning full proof bourbon which is yet another excellent option for making Mint Julep. You will enjoy the notes of spice lead caramel, oak, vanilla, and caramel, all of which are supported by a solid backbone.
Single Barrel – with a high rye content of 35 percent – is considered one of the best spirits in the Four Rose line of products. It comes in at 100 proof and explodes with pleasant flavors right from the onset.
In a Mint Julep, these flavors translate to a sustained oak and honey flavors which go incredibly well with the sweetness enhanced by sugar syrup.
Rabbit Hole Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey is a new addition to the list of the best bourbon for Mint Julep. It is also a product of one of the new distilleries established in Louisville and is made with a mash bill that is not uncommon in bourbon: 70 percent corn, 10 percent malted honey barley, 10 percent malted barley, and 10 percent wheat.
This remarkable mix of grains gives this spirit a fantastic honeyed flavor which serves to emphasize the mint in your julep in a subtle way.
How to Make the Finest Mint Julep
As you may have deduced by now, there are several ways of making Mint Juleps. Here are a few of the most popular methods of preparing this traditional cocktail of the Kentucky Derby. You should take your time when trying this, starting from the Classic method:
- 1.3 oz Bulleit Bourbon
- 4 mint leaves and young, tender sprigs of mint
- A teaspoon sugar or 0.75 oz simple syrup
Get some chunks of ice and crush them in a canvas ice bag. Next, get the sprigs of mint and bruise the leaves in the bottom of a julep cup containing sugar syrup. Add some ice to the cup until it reaches the ¾ mark. Then pour in half of the bourbon.
Stir the mixture so that the julep cup can chill. Top off everything with additional powdered ice as well as the remaining bourbon. Continue stirring the mixture until the outside of the julep cup starts freezing.
Then garnish it with the mint sprigs, and set it aside to allow the julep cup to freeze over on its exterior. When this happens, pick up your mint julep and have a go at imbibing the content of the cup.
Hibiscus Mint Julep
- 1 oz Old Forester Classic 86 Proof
- 1 barspoon Becherovka Liqueur
- 1 oz Old Forester Signature 100 Proof
- 0.75 oz Hibiscus Syrup
- 3 mint sprigs for garnishing along with hibiscus flower (if available)
- 8-10 mint leaves
Rub the mint leaves inside a double antique glass. Add in bourbons, syrup, and liqueur. Pack the mixture with crushed ice and garnish everything with three sprigs of mint.
Basil Hayden’s Bourbon Thyme Julep
- 2 oz Basil Hayden’s Bourbon
- 6 fresh thyme sprigs
- 1 dash Angostura bitters
- 1 bar spoon simple syrup
Muddle some fresh thyme in a rocks glass and then combine the remaining ingredient in a mixing glass together with ice. Stir until the entire mixture becomes cold. Next, fine strain everything into a rocks glass that is already filled with ice. Then garnish the drink with toasted thyme sprigs.
Carthusian Mint Julep
- 6 mint leaves
- 1 oz Maker’s Mark Bourbon
- Mint sprigs
- 0.5 oz green Chartreuse
- Pebble ice
Muddle the 6 mint leaves gently along with the Chartreuse in the bottom of a julep cup. Add in the bourbon and then fill the container halfway with pebble ice. Stir the ingredient briefly, then add a metal straw. Pack the glass full of pebble ice and then garnish the entire mixture with lots of thyme and mint.
Bless Your Heart Mint Julep
- 1.5 oz Maker’s Mark Bourbon
- Pebble ice
- 1 barspoon Bonne Maman Blueberry jam
- 1 large basil sprig
- 1 dash Angostura bitters
- 2 large basil leaves
- Powdered sugar
Muddle the basil leaves, bourbon, and blueberry jam. Top the mixture with pebble ice, and then garnish with a dusting of powdered sugar and basil sprig. As a final touch, add one dash of Angostura bitters on top of the sprig.
Drinking mint julep should not be regulated to the Kentucky Derby only. As long as you can get your hands on any of the best bourbons for making a mint julep, making a few cups shouldn’t be too tricky, especially with summer fast approaching.
So, go out there, get those bourbons, and make this summer an enjoyable one for you and your friends or family, garnished properly with mint julep!