With Derby Day nearly upon us, let’s unpack the history of the race’s signature cocktail: the mint julep. While the Derby-julep partnership can be traced back to 1939, the cocktail is an icon of the American South that pre-dates the Civil War. In fact, you can find mentions of mint juleps in writing as far back as the 18th century.
The word “julep” is derived from the Persian gulab, which means “rose water.” That derivation makes sense considering the cocktail’s early life as a medicinal tonic used to treat stomach sickness. As the drink crossed into Europe, mint leaves replaced the rose water and various spirits were added until it made its way stateside where bourbon became the standard.
But not so fast. The Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac alleges that cognac was the original spirit used. Indeed, evidence suggests cognac was popular around the Civil War period; although, Virginia farmers were making them with whiskey as far back as 1803 where the julep was a popular morning eye-opener. Until something like this probably happened.
Adding to this confusion, the 1862 edition of barman Jerry Thomas’ Bar-Tenders Guide allowed for cognac, brandy, gin, whiskey or even sparkling wine. By the end of the century, however, bourbon emerged on top.
Whatever the spirit, the iconic silver cups have been the traditional container for the julep since the early 1800s. The first cups can be traced back to Kentucky silversmiths Asa Blanchard of Lexington and William and Archibald Cooper of Louisville.
When properly packed with ice, the metal will act as a conductor, chilling the contents and giving the cocktail its frosty look. Julep etiquette dictates you hold the cup at the top or bottom so as to not impede frosting. Unless your this guy; then hold it however you damn well please.
Mint Julep Recipe
2 1/2 oz. bourbon
1/2 oz. simple syrup
8 mint leaves*
Directions: While the mint julep may seem intimidating, it’s not really a difficult drink to make, though it is easily botched if you’re not careful. Take your time, don’t take shortcuts, and you’ll do fine.
Add the mint into your silver-plated julep cup (a highball glass works just fine), and muddle gently. Pack in the crushed ice, add the bourbon, and pour the simple syrup over the top. Garnish with a couple mint sprigs. (Tip: give the leaves a good slap to release their essential oils before you garnish.)
Take care to just lightly press the mint leaves; too much muddling will make them bitter.
Use a cloth napkin or another material that will absorb any excess water. Too much moisture will dilute the drink and prevent frosting if you’re using a metal cup.
Enjoy while listening to this.