Sake + Shochu Talk
The first Saturday in May is a special time of year for many Americans, especially those south of the Mason-Dixon. The month of May is to fans of horse racing what March is to college hoops fans, because it means it's time for the annual "Run for the Roses," better known as the Kentucky Derby. With this year's race only a few days away, it is only appropriate to dedicate today's Happy Hour to the official drink of the Kentucky Derby, the Mint Julep.

Derived from the Persian word Golab (rosewater), the Julep is as much a symbol of American ingenuity in the art of inebriation as the exalted Sazerac. It also predates the Sazerac by at least half a century. The earliest written mention of the Mint Julep dates to 1803 when John Davis, a British tutor working in the South described the drink as "a dram of spirituous liquor that has mint steeped in it, taken by Virginians of a morning."

As is expected, a drink of such vintage has been a source of vigorous debate regarding the finer points of its recipe and origin. To be sure, there is no one "original" Mint Julep recipe--more accurately stated, there is no way of knowing who's recipe is the original. For example, Ted Saucier's 1951 classic cocktail guide Bottoms Up features fifteen different Julep recipes, all from various noted Southern barmen. There's even a debate over whether the mint should be crushed or not, with some contending that muddling the mint makes it a Mint Smash, not a Mint Julep. We shall leave that debate alone.

Modern Mint Julep recipes almost exclusively call for bourbon (the distinctive brand of American whiskey produced in Bourbon County, Kentucky), but this was not always the case. Early nineteenth century Mint Julep recipes called for either brandy, European or Canadian whiskey, and possibly even rum, as some historical evidence suggests the Julep entered the states in the late 18th century via New Orleans by way of the Caribbean, which of course is the dominion of rum.

Perhaps only after the production of American bourbon was refined did it begin to replace other spirits in Mint Julep recipes. But regardless of one's "spiritual" position in this debate, few things are certain: bourbon was the spirit of choice in the Mint Juleps served in the inaugural run of the Kentucky Derby in 1875, so by the time the Mint Julep became the official drink of the Derby in 1938, bourbon had long made its mark (pun intended) as the go-to spirit in the recipe.

Mint Julep
10-12 torn mint leaves, plus a few sprigs for garnish
2 tsp simple syrup
3 oz bourbon (Bulleit bourbon is superb here)
Lots of crushed ice

Tools: muddler, straw (optional)

Glass: julep cup (pictured above)

Wet the outside of the julep cup with water and place it in the freezer. Once well chilled, carefully remove the cup from the freezer with a towel so as not to destroy any of the frost. Place the mint and simple syrup in the cup and using the muddler, gently crush the mint leaves. Fill the cup with crushed ice, add the bourbon, and give a gentle stir to distribute the mint. Pack with more crushed ice to the top, and garnish with the reserved mint sprigs.

The silver julep cup is the traditional way to serve and enjoy a Mint Julep. The hot and humid climate of the South made this metal vessel the perfect choice for extending the coldness of the drink as long as possible, especially since the drink was invented before there were any refrigerators. But julep cups are quite difficult to track down (not to mention expensive), so feel free to use a collins or highball glass (chilled the same way) instead, which have become the modern day substitutes.

While the Mint Julep is a fairly simple and easy drink to prepare, I caution against taking too casual an approach. While it's tempting to cut a few corners, it is also the easiest way to make a mediocre and underwhelming Mint Julep. Trust me when I say that the extra care taken in assembling a good Mint Julep will reap rewards that far outweigh the value of the time and money expended in the venture. Now that's a horse worth betting on. Cheers!

Come back every Wednesday for Paystyle's weekly Happy Hour column.

Photography by Vanessa Bahmani
Column: Happy Hour


  • I really like the post this week, and absolutely love the julep cup.

    Vanessa Bahmani on

  • Wow Pay, excellent post! I can’t believe the Julep has been the drink of choice for the Derby since 1938.

    Def would like to go to the derby one day- just so I can wear a gigantic hat and sip Juleps and get sunburned. Ahhh…

    kayoko on

  • Never had a Mint Julep… need to try one pronto.

    Melissa Good Taste on

  • Actually the Julep’s been the drink of choice since the very beginning (1875). In 1938 they just made it official.

    Paystyle on

  • Omg I never realized it was like 95% alcohol!!

    Sonja on

  • You know it’s interesting that you mentioned doing a rosewater variation, as I actually tried that and planned on writing about it as well, but it just didn’t seem to work.

    I’m sure there’s a way to make it work, but the one I made didn’t make the final cut b/c the subtlety of the rosewater seemed to get lost, especially b/c this is a drink that has a constant flow of slowly melting ice.

    If you make a more successful one I’d love to hear about it.

    Paystyle on

  • That icy-cold cup is making me very thirsty! I have a big bundle of mint from the farmers’ market but no bourbon. Might have to go get some.
    That is very interesting about the origin of the name too. Rosewater is good to have around at this time of year because it’s really nice with rhubarb. I think a mint and rosewater julep might be a nice variation (although Kentuckians might think it is abominable).

    tiny banquet committee on

  • Sonja – Not to worry about the amount of alcohol, b/c once the ice melts and when it’s all said and done it’s not that much. It may taste a bit strong at first, but it’s intended to be enjoyed slowly as the ice continues to melt.

    In the end you can always add more sugar/water to suit your taste.

    Paystyle on

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