Every year, almost 120,000 Mint Juleps are served over two days at the Kentucky Derby, requiring more than 450kg of freshly harvested mint and a whopping 27,000kg of ice. Every single one is served with Old Forester Bourbon as the base spirit. Here, the distillery’s master taster Jackie Zykan talks MoM through the rich history of the serve…
As cocktail histories go, Juleps are positively ancient. Derived from the Persian word for rosewater – Golâb – Juleps were “originally sweetened elixirs used to deliver herbaceous medicine,” says Zykan, “a common origin for many cocktails we know today – Gin and Tonic, anyone?”. Indeed, rosewater was a popular anti-inflammatory used in ancient Egypt, while mint has long been used as a digestive aid, “its natural cooling properties made it well suited to help combat the hot, humid climate of the southern United States,” she says.
The Mint Julep became a customary cocktail of the American south during the 18th century. Documented in the 1700s as the ‘drink of Virginians’, it made its cocktail debut as a brandy-based libation, and was published in various forms featuring a variety of base spirits, says Zykan. “It wasn’t until Kentucky senator Henry Clay introduced the drink – with bourbon as a base, of course – to the Round Robin Bar in Washington D.C that the drink became established as a classic,” she explains.
Served in silver or pewter cups – a traditional gift in southern culture used to mark momentous occasions – the Mint Julep “became a drink of southern summer refreshment as well as a marker of high society,” says Zykan. “Ice was a limited commodity back then, and to be able to accessorise oneself with a drink served in silver, made with ice and fine spirits, and laboriously crafted, was a point of pride in Southern culture.”
While the Mint Julep is one of the few cocktails that has its own vessel, the vessel does not just apply to the drink. “They have been used historically as water glasses, vases, and yes, for Juleps,” she continues. “It was considered a status symbol and quite fashionable to be able to serve your guests a cocktail in silver, and even more so a mark of etiquette if you knew how to properly hold the cup – by the rim and base only.”
After the Kentucky Derby was established in May 17, 1875, “a large patch of mint was planted on the first turn of the track at Churchill Downs, which was utilised to create the Juleps on site,” says Zykan. “Prohibition led to many media outlets reporting that they missed their Juleps during Derby, giving the cocktail even more association with the race.” The Mint Julep became the official drink of the Kentucky Derby in 1938, and has been served in a commemorative glass since 1940.
By definition, the drink is made by combining a base spirit with sugar, crushed ice, and mint. “Sugar serves as a palate pleaser and subdues the heat of the alcohol,” Zykan explains. “Mint is the main modifying flavour to the base spirit, and provides a refreshing cooling effect. The crushed ice is just as important as any of the previously listed items, as this drink requires ample dilution to last through a hot day. When ice is crushed, the surface area is increased, leading to a more generous dilution.”
Historically, genever-based Juleps have also enjoyed popularity both in the US and overseas, but today, bourbon is more commonly associated with the drink. “The base spirit we know and love here in Kentucky is bourbon, and at the Derby, that’s what you’ll be served,” says Zykan. “Old Forester has a generous rye portion in its mashbill, which expresses some very complimentary green and citrus notes to the bright, fresh mint flavour.”
That’s not to say you can’t give the drink your own personal twist. Being such a simple cocktail, customising a Julep is incredibly easy, Zykan says. For example, you could substitute the sugar for flavoured syrups, maple syrup, or honey. “Of course it wouldn’t be a Mint Julep without the mint, but any herbaceous element here will still justify the label of ‘Julep’,” she continues. “Things like basil and sage can be quite interesting. Muddling fruit is also not off limits, as many classic Julep recipes call for fruit as well, such as pineapple.”
Since the drink has so few ingredients, the aromatic mint garnish is particularly crucial for constructing a cracking Mint Julep – and given the impenetrable mass of crushed ice, so is a straw. Funnily enough, the drink actually inspired the creation of the modern-day drinking straw. “A gentleman by the name of Marvin Stone was reportedly drinking a Mint Julep in 1880 with a strand of ryegrass as a straw, and due to its functional failure, was inspired to create the paper straw in 1888,” says Zykan.
The Mint Julep has stood the test of time, and it’s one of a handful of classic cocktails whose basic recipe remains relatively unchanged since it rose to prominence in the American south. “I absolutely love a Julep, and not just for Derby,” Zykan says. “It truly is the most refreshing warm-weather cocktail.” Ready to get cracking? You’ll find the traditional Mint Julep recipe below…
“A well-made Julep is something to really appreciate, and making them at home gives you full control over the flavour profile that speaks to you,” says Zykan. “Mint is very easy to grow, sugar is easy to find, and we at Old Forester will make sure to keep stocking the shelves with the highest quality whiskey we can make to ensure your Juleps always taste delicious.”
Here’s what you’ll need:
Pack your mint julep cup with crushed ice. In a mixing glass, combine the bourbon, syrup, and mint leaves. Lightly bruise mint leaves with a muddler and strain the contents into a julep cup. As you garnish the drink with 3 generous sprigs of mint, slap the mint to release the aromatics. Then insert a straw into the ice near the mint.