A Brief History of the Mint Julep (with Recipes!)

mint julep recipe

With the Kentucky Derby right around the corner, we’ve decided to take a look at the history of the cocktail most associated with the event, the mint julep, because, as with many cocktails, its history is as muddled as the mint in the drink itself.

Before we get into anything, let’s get the basics out of the way:

The Classic Mint Julep

mint julep in clear glass with ice
  • 2 oz. High Proof Bourbon
  • 1/2 oz. Simple Syrup
  • 4 Fresh Mint Leaves
  • Crushed Ice

Method: Muddle the mint in the glass to express the essential oils. Add bourbon, simple syrup, and crushed ice. Stir. Garnish with more mint.

Now, we need to look at the word julep itself. It’s believed that the word is derived from the Persian gulab, as well as the Arab word julab, both of which translate to “rosewater” and highlight the drink as we know it’s sweet nature.

One of the first references to the mint julep comes as far back as 1784, when mint juleps were used, like many alcoholic concoctions, as medicine. Then, in John Davis’s 1803 book Travels of Four and a Half Years in the United States of America, a mint julep was said to be, “”a dram of spirituous liquor that has mint steeped in it, taken by Virginians of a morning.” At this point, it wasn’t specified what spirit was used, but it’s safe to say that whiskey was among the choices, as were genever or rum, and what went into your julep depended on not only what was available, but also (and more importantly) your social class. It’s said that bourbon became most closely associated with the mint julep because the poor farmers who could not afford the imported spirits such as rum would use bourbon instead (a great choice, if you ask us, socioeconomic status be damned).

The ties to the Kentucky Derby also stretch back a ways—to 1938—when it was designated the official drink of the event. There is no real explanation as to why this happened, but it did, and we all benefit now once a year because of it. Each year, Churchhill downs serves up 120,000 juleps over the two days of races and while most of them are made with Old Forrester, the official bourbon of the Kentucky Derby mint julep since 2015 (previously Early Times was the contracted whiskey), race-goers can pony up $1000 for a mint julep made with Woodford Reserve and served in a gold-plated glass with a silver straw.

Feeling inspired now? Ready to hop in the race yourself? Check out this take on the classic mint julep, which uses scotch whisky and bitters!

Malt Julep

(Created by Struan Ralph, Glenfiddich Brand Ambassador)

  • 2 parts Glenfiddich 14 Year Old
  • Bruised mint leaves
  • Simple syrup
  • 2 dashes Angostura bitters

Method: Build with crushed ice and garnish with mint sprigs in a traditional Julep cup.