The History of the Mint Julep

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As many as 120,000 mint juleps will be downed at Churchill Downs this weekend for the Kentucky Derby. If you don't know how to pick horses, don't have a funny hat, or require an excuse to disassociate from people who talk about horse racing and/or wear funny hats, meet thy solace: the mint julep.

The bourbon cocktail traveled west to Kentucky from Virginia, where it was once made with spirits like rum and brandy. It's been whispered that the drink, traditionally made with sugar syrup and mint, was once cherished for its medicinal properties and was used by farmers for a jolt akin to coffee before they took the fields in the morning. 

The mint julep as we now know it became the official drink of the Kentucky Derby in 1938. By then, Kentucky bourbon, distilled far from the sugar-rich Caribbean, had replaced its more saccharine cousins as the main spirit in the cocktail.

Mint juleps were served in pewter julep cups with crushed or shaved ice for a specific reason:

The purpose of the cups isn't immediately clear to most drinkers because they are holding them wrong. Julep cups should only be held by the top or the bottom so that the crushed ice inside them can create a frost on the outside.

With the bourbon, ice, and julep cups in mind, there is also the julep part of the equation:

The word “julep” derives from the ancient Persian gulab, used to denote a sort of sweetened rosewater (if you’ve ever had gulab jamun at an Indian restaurant, it’s made with just such a syrup). In classical Arabic, the word became julab, only to cross over into Latin as julapium.

This year, the folks at Woodford Reserve, one of Kentucky's most highly-regarded bourbons, are hawking mint juleps for $1,000 and $2,000 a pop that will come in specialty julep cups and commemorative boxes made of oak from bourbon barrels. Distiller Chris Morris explained some of the flourishes that harken back to the julep's storied history.

We have candied rose petals, actual rose petals that we’ve soaked in sugar water. So we’re going to put some rose petals in the cup, a little bit of mint, muddle that together. The ice we’re using has been made from rose water. … It has the mint, but now it has the rose hint to it.”

While that sounds perfectly delightful, there are other (Churchill) downers like me who believe that mint juleps are a horrible waste of perfectly good bourbon. 

And this is why I don't get invited to Derby parties. If you must mint julep though, here is a "how-to" video by cocktail guru Dale DeGroff.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.