The Kentucky Derby season is right around the corner. As we speak, horses are being shoed, dirt is being laid, and hats are being… brimmed? But most importantly, thousands of bottles of Kentucky bourbon are being bottled in preparation for the biggest mint julep event of the year.
Over the course of the two-day event, over 120,000 mint juleps are estimated to be sold. That equates to over 10,000 bottles of the ready to serve cocktail from Old Forester, 1,000 pounds of fresh mint, and 60,000 pounds of crushed ice. But what is the history of the mint julep? How did the quintessential Kentucky Derby drink get its start, and how did it become the race’s official cocktail? Our answer lies across the ocean, and several centuries in the past.
The earliest known origin of the word “julep” comes from the Persian word Golâb, meaning rosewater. Back then, Persian royalty would infuse water with rose petals and use it to bathe. By the 9th century AD, Golâb was being used as medicine, and began to spread across the region as a cure-all for stomach issues and shortness of breath.
At this point, due to the plentiful supply of mint in the Mediterranean, rose petals were replaced in lieu of the fragrant, green leaves we associate with the drink today. The name morphed from golâb into julab, and the drink continued to grow in popularity.
By the 18th century, the julab had reached the United States. The drink was still used medicinally, but by this point had gained the much-welcomed additions of honey for sweetness, and rum or brandy for… You know. However, it wasn’t long before rising import taxes priced these foreign spirits out of the julep
In a feat of American ingenuity, the rum problem was solved with the creation of a brand new, American spirit: bourbon. The exact origins of bourbon are heavily debated, though it’s generally agreed upon that the spirit originated in the Kentucky area, in the late 18th century. During this time, settlers who came from Ireland and Scotland had begun distilling whiskey using the techniques they brought from their homelands. At this point, the whiskey they distilled was primarily made with rye, which grew plentifully in the northern states they inhabited.
Near the end of the 18th century, these distilling techniques made their way to the south, and with the addition of corn into the mash, and the added effect of charring the oak barrels used to age the whiskey, these Kentucky distillers came up with the early versions of what we now know as bourbon.
The name “Bourbon” comes from the French royal family of the time, the Bourbon family, who provided much-needed aid during the Revolutionary War. This royal family was honored with a county in their name: Bourbon County, Kentucky. With that, we have the final ingredient necessary for our journey through mint julep history.
The Bourbon Family
The mint julep has been enjoyed in the United States throughout most of the country’s recorded history, particularly in the south. When Churchill Downs held the very first Kentucky Derby in 1875, it is likely that guests enjoyed juleps while watching the steeds fly across the track. In 1939, the mint julep became the official drink of the Kentucky Derby, the same year that they began to be sold in collector cups, a tradition which remains to this day.
First Kentucky Derby
Guests at the derby today can even opt for the $1,000 extra-premium mint julep, which contains Woodford Reserve bourbon, in gold-plated cups with silver straws. The Kentucky Derby drink remains popular outside of the two day race as well; most cocktail bars will make them upon request, and there is even an official Mint Julep Day on May 30.
The basic mint julep recipe is quite simple. The mint julep is, at its core, bourbon, sugar, mint, and a generous heap of crushed ice. The ratio and preparation of these ingredients is where recipes can differ. Some recipes say to use sugar, while others call for simple syrup (sugar dissolved into water). Some mint julep recipes even suggest creating a mint extract, for an even stronger aroma.
Regardless, your end result should be fragrant, lightly sweet, and almost excessively frosty. The traditional serving vessel for the mint julep is a silver or pewter cup, and the ice should create a mound that reaches over the top of the cup. A straw can be used for easier access to the delicious nectar below.
To make a mint julep at home, you don’t need a lot of ingredients, or equipment. Two and a half ounces of any bourbon will work, though Old Forester is the official julep bourbon of the Kentucky Derby. ½ ounce of our Classic Gum Syrup or Demerara Gum Syrup will add the perfect sweetness and texture to the drink.
If you don’t have these on hand, two sugar cubes, or teaspoons of sugar will work if muddled with your mint. Speaking of mint, fresh mint is key. The mint should be bright green, crisp, and fragrant. Muddle a handful of picked mint leaves with your sugar, or simple syrup (if you don’t have a muddler, the back of a wooden spoon should work) directly in the bottom of your glass.
Then, add your bourbon, and top with crushed ice. Cubed ice will work in a pinch, but crushed ice can be made easily by pounding ice cubes in a bag with a rolling pin or meat tenderizer. Remember to overfill the glass with your ice! Then, it’s a matter of stirring the drink to fully mix all the ingredients, and to get the glass nice and frosty.
You can use a normal spoon for this, but we recommend a bar spoon, as it really lets you get down into the bottom of the drink easily. Make sure to add an extra sprig of fresh mint on top for fragrance. As for the glass, while silver and pewter cups are ideal, they are also harder to come by. A rocks glass will work just fine, or even a moscow mule mug if you have it.
Now, let’s say you’re not a drinker, but still want to enjoy a julep during the race. There are plenty of options for a great non alcoholic mint julep recipe! If you want to keep it simple, you can keep the recipe the same, and substitute water for the bourbon. This will result in a cold, refreshing drink that will keep you hydrated!
Non-Alc Mint Julep
You could also opt for a zero-proof bourbon, like this non alcoholic spirit from Celtic Soul. If you’re looking for a non-alcoholic mint julep that tastes like the real thing, this is your best bet. If you’re a creative type, try experimenting with different flavors in your non alcoholic julep! Consider adding fresh lemon or lime juice for a bit of tartness, muddling fresh berries with your mint, or even adding one of our flavored cocktail syrups for a fun twist on the drink. Our Pineapple Gum Syrup or Fiery Ginger Syrup would be wonderful substitutions for the more traditional simple syrup.
We hope you’ve enjoyed this journey through mint julep history. While you’re enjoying this year’s Kentucky Derby drink (or three), remember, there are centuries of tradition behind what’s in your cup! So let’s tip our hats to the mint julep, the tastiest medicine in the world.