There aren’t many drinks that top off a hot, summer day like the classic mint julep. It’s a stylish southern staple made with bourbon, crushed ice, muddled mint, and a splash of simple syrup. It’s served in a chilled, silver cup and it’s a little bit of heaven.
Louisville, Kentucky, the heart of bourbon country and the gateway to the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, declared the month of April as Mint Julep Month back in 2013, celebrating the arrival of spring and encouraging bars and patrons to exhibit their own unique mint julep recipes during the month leading up to the “greatest two minutes in sports” — the Kentucky Derby.
But the origins of the Mint Julep run a little deeper than Derby Day.
Stronger Than Coffee
According to bourbon historian Michael Veach, the mint julep drink was likely invented sometime in the 18th Century. The drink was actually consumed in the morning by southern farmers to help get them up-and-ready for a long day’s work with livestock, tending to gardens and harvesting crops. Talk about a pick-me-up! It’s also said that frontiersmen would carry their eating and drinking utensils from place-to-place, and that anyone with a silver cup was seen as someone with wealth. According to the Derby Museum, the mint julep became Churchill Down’s signature drink in 1938, serving the drink in sterling silver souvenir cups to patrons at the Kentucky Derby. Perhaps, the two tales combined to signify wealth and class at the Derby.
Conflicting stories, or perhaps bartenders’ preferences, have lead to a disagreement over what spirit was originally used in the classic mint julep cocktail. Some say the very first mix was made with cognac during the Civil War, while others claim that whiskey was first used, citing John Davis’ 1803 book, Travels of Four Years and A Half in the United States of America. At any rate, today’s version of the mint julep is unarguably made with bourbon or whiskey.
No Derby? No Worries
You don’t have to go to Kentucky to get lucky, as they say. Half the fun of enjoying a mint julep is the preparation. To make the classic cocktail at home, you only need four ingredients: crushed ice, your favorite bourbon, some fresh mint sprigs (a few leaves for muddling, and a sprig for garnish), and a bit of simple syrup.
Pro Tip: Drink It Fresh, Not Bottled
The classic southern quencher is said to be the official drink of the Kentucky Derby, with more than 120,000 premade mint juleps served at Churchill Downs racetrack each year–think baseball-stadium-style, handed out by folks wearing seersucker and hauling the drinks around in a large vending tray. And a bunch of bourbon distilleries now offer a bottled mint julep, which simply adds mint flavoring to the bourbon itself.
Many would argue that a mint julep is intended to be reserved for special occasions, and is best when made fresh. It’s not something you order at clubs or drink on bar crawls, (can you imagine?) so enjoy the drink as intended–with fresh muddled mint, classic simple syrup, overflowing crushed ice, and a strong pour of your favorite bourbon or whiskey.
And Ditch the Plastic
The straw, invented specifically for use in sipping the mint julep is every bit as iconic. Unfortunately, the paper straws of the 1800s have evolved into the modern plastic straws that contribute heavily to environmental pollution. This year, throughout the month of April, the Mint Julep Month campaign encouraged bourbon fans to ditch the plastic straw in support of water sustainability.
You can participate by ditching plastic straws for metal or paper ones!