Horse racing’s biggest day is right around the corner and it’s time to take a look at the cocktail that is most closely associated with the day. We’re talking about the Kentucky Derby, naturally, and with it, the mint julep. While it may seem on the surface that the drink is only associated with the Derby, if you dig a little deeper you’ll find that the history of the mint julep is as muddled as the mint in the drink itself.
(Just kidding, the history is actually pretty clear on this one, but we had to throw that joke in there. Don’t shake your head, you would’ve done the same thing.)
First, let’s 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.” This association is highlighted by the modern drink’s sweet nature.
One of the first references to the mint julep goes as far back as 1784, when mint juleps were used (like many alcoholic concoctions) as medicine. Later, 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. Bourbon became most closely associated with the mint julep in the United States because the poor farmers who could not afford the imported spirits such as rum would use an American-made liquor stead (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 declared the official drink of the sporting 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, Churchill Downs serves up 120,000 juleps over the two days of races. While most of them are made with Old Forester, the official bourbon of the Kentucky Derby mint julep since 2015 (previously Early Times was the contracted whiskey), race-goers can pony up $1,000 for a mint julep made with Woodford Reserve and served in a gold-plated glass with a silver straw.
Now that you know where the drink came from, are you feeling a little thirsty? Here is a recipe for a classic mint julep (seersucker suit optional, but encouraged).
- 2 oz high-proof bourbon (here are the best bourbons for a mint julep)
- .5 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.
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