Cocktail Spotlight: The Mint Julep
While the Kentucky Derby may be postponed for now, we can still celebrate the season with its signature drink – the Mint Julep! Grab your favorite Bourbon and floppy hat and prepare to learn about Kentucky’s most famous cocktail.
The Mint Julep Gets Its Start
Like almost all early cocktails, the Mint Julep was first recorded in 1784 as a cure for “sickness at the stomach, with frequent retching, and, at times, the difficulty of swallowing” – but its origin story goes back even further than that. In fact, the word “julep” derives from the Persian word for “rose water,” drunk in the early fifteenth century to mask the bitterness of medicine. Later, the rose petals would be replaced by indigenous mint.
It wasn’t until the early 1800s that the drink began to be consumed more frequently as a cocktail. First mentioned in print in 1803, one writer described the mint julep as a “dram of spirituous liquor that has mint in it, taken by Virginians in the morning.”
Thanks to former Kentucky senator Henry Clay, the Mint Julep gained prominence in Washington, D.C. in 1850. He first introduced the drink at the Round Robin Bar in the Willard Hotel and from there, the recipe hit the mainstream. Spurred along by popular culture references from the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald (The Great Gatsby, published 1924), Margaret Mitchell (Gone With The Wind, published 1936), and others, the Mint Julep soon became a symbol of sophisticated southern charm.
In 1983 the Mint Julep finally became the official drink of the Kentucky Derby – and has been ever since.
From Medicinal Syrup to Derby Delight
Following the conclusion of the 1938 Kentucky Derby, the staff noticed they were significantly short on glasses. They quickly realized that fans seeking souvenirs of their big day at the races were the culprits. By the next year, 1939, Churchill Downs had found the perfect solution.
Caterer Harry Stevens was commissioned to produce the first-ever commemorative Kentucky Derby glassware. And of course, the drink chosen to be served in this special glass was none other than the mint julep. The decision paid off, more than tripling drink sales at the track. In the early years, there were fewer than 100,000 commemorative glasses made. Today, more than 700,000 are made each year.
The Mint Julep has remained the traditional beverage of Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby for nearly a century. Every year, that tradition continues as almost 120,000 Mint Juleps are served over the two-day period of Kentucky Oaks and Kentucky Derby weekend at Churchill Downs.
According to the official website of the Kentucky Derby, that’s a feat that requires more than 10,000 bottles of Old Forester Mint Julep Ready-to-Serve Cocktail, along with 1,000 pounds of freshly harvested mint and 60,000 pounds of ice.
It’s fitting that the historic event concludes with the Winner’s Party where the Kentucky governor raises a toast to the victor with, you guessed it, a Mint Julep.
Bourbon in Cocktails
The classic Mint Julep recipe is easy to recreate at home. All you need is mint, simple syrup (sugar water), Bourbon, and crushed ice – but there are a few other characteristic qualities you should remember:
- First, the Mint Julep belongs to a category of cocktails called “smashes,” because its ingredients are smashed together. In the classic version of this cocktail, the mint is muddled with the other ingredients to enhance the flavor, essential oils, and natural juices of the herb.
- Second, as is tradition, Mint Juleps are always served in pewter cups. The intention is that the drinker holds the drink from either the top or the bottom, allowing the ice to frost the outside of the cup.
Besides the Mint Julep, Bourbon is a key ingredient in many classic cocktails. The Manhattan is one of the most popular Bourbon cocktails. Originating in the 1880s, this recipe uses cherries and sweet vermouth to create a strong cocktail with slight bitterness and some herbal undertones. It originated in none other than Manhattan’s “The Manhattan Club” which boasted large cellars full of rye whiskey.
However, an even older famous Bourbon cocktail dates back to the 1860s. Aptly named, the Old Fashioned is a Bourbon-based cocktail that includes sweet oranges and cherries. And although this cocktail was created in Kentucky, it didn’t become famous until a Bourbon enthusiast perfected the recipe and introduced it to New York City.
The creation of some of history’s biggest Bourbon cocktails stems from having access to creative minds as well as an abundance of the liquor. While some people will reach for the classics – an Old Fashioned, Manhattan, or a Mint Julep – others prefer the simplicity of a Bourbon neat.
However you choose to take your Bourbon, we invite you to become a Bourbon Steward! The Stave & Thief Society is the first Bourbon certification program recognized by the industry and the only to be recognized by the Kentucky Distillers Association as its “Official Bourbon Education Course.”
Right now, you can become a Certified Bourbon Steward from the comforts of home. Just order our handbook, study at your own pace, then take the online test. For more information, visit staveandthief.com/certification/.