With the Kentucky Derby coming up this weekend, we are busy getting ready for the festivities. After you’ve placed your bets and pulled together the perfect outfit, there’s only one thing left to do: drink. And when it comes to Derby booze, there is no cocktail more classically perfect for the occasion than a mint julep. So we caught up with Chris Morris, Woodford Reserve’s master distiller, to learn a little more about the history of the mint julep and a few variations that will impress your friends at Saturday’s derby party.
What is the history of the mint julep? Where did it originate and why is it such an iconic element of the Kentucky Derby?
The modern mint julep has origins in the Middle East with a drink called a “julab” made with water and rose petals. When the julab was introduced to the Mediterranean region by returning Crusaders, the native population replaced the rose petals with mint, a plant indigenous to the area. Spirits, usually an un-aged brandy, soon replaced the julab’s water component as the drink took on medicinal qualities. When North America was settled by Europeans in the 17th century they brought the drink with them. In the southern coastal English colonies, it was made with rum or brandy and became known as the “Virginia Dram.”
As Virginia settled its Kentucky territory, the julep made its final evolution. The biggest change was the addition of bourbon whiskey to the recipe. The mint julep was originally a morning drink for farmers called a “bracer,” the spirited equivalent of coffee in today’s society. Like farmers, horse trainers were up early and would prepare the julep first thing in the morning. Through the years, the drink started showing up at regional horse races where it made the transition from a morning drink to a “sipping” cocktail. In the early 18th century, Kentucky silver julep cups were awarded as racing trophies. So very early in Kentucky’s history, its two signature industries – bourbon and horse racing – were joined by the mint julep. It was only natural the Kentucky Derby adopted the cocktail as its official drink.
The Woodford Reserve $1,000 Mint Julep is a Derby tradition that benefits Old Friends Thoroughbred Retirement Center. What was the inspiration behind the ingredients this year?
This year, we are celebrating 89 years of the Kentucky Derby’s trophy being crafted from gold. So we craft our $1,000 Mint Juleps using gold-influenced ingredients. The sweetener is a brand of sorghum from Woodford County called “Woodford Gold.” The mint sprigs are also from Woodford County. But because there is no such thing as gold mint, we dust it with 24 carat gold leaf. The ice is made from naturally gold filtered spring water from Nova Scotia. Of course, our gold medal-winning Woodford Reserve is at the heart of the julep.
The mint julep is a classic cocktail, but that doesn’t mean it should never be altered. What are some ways you can make the julep your own? Are there any favorite ingredients that take it to the next level?
Experiment with new sweeteners in place of sugar like honey or agave syrup. Add various fruits to the muddle to balance the impact of the mint. Try adding a sparkling splash to the drink such as champagne or ginger ale in a ginger julep. As long as it tastes good, you can’t go wrong!
Woodford Reserve Master Distiller Chris Morris’ Mint Julep Recipe
2 mint leaves
1 tsp confectionary sugar
2 ½ oz Woodford Reserve Bourbon
1 mint sprig
Muddler (or use the end of a wooden spoon)
Muddle mint leaves, 3 drops of Woodford Reserve and a teaspoon of confectionary sugar in the bottom of a julep glass. This will create a sugary mint paste. Spread the paste evenly over the bottom of the cup with the muddler. Add the sipping straw and fill the cup 2/3rd full with crushed ice. Pack the ice down with the muddler. Add Woodford Reserve. Top off with loose crushed ice. Garnish with a mint sprig next to the sipping straw.
Take the same ingredients listed above, but replace the sugar with candied ginger. The result is delicious.
Take the same ingredients listed for the classic and add 2 chopped strawberries to the muddle. Fill the cup 2/3 with ice and stir. Finish the drink like the classic, but add a slice of strawberry in place of mint for garnish.