Every year the Kentucky Derby sells about 120,000 mint juleps in a two-day span. Fans pack the stands to watch 20 horses rumble ‘round the track, with the fastest earning the roses they are all running for. Invariably, almost every hand is holding a julep cup filled with the Southern classic. Crushed ice, syrup, bourbon and mint. It’s one of the South’s simplest pleasures. Its origin is one of our greatest mysteries. Like the “Run for the Roses,” the story of the mint julep has a beginning and an end, although the middle is muddled like mint and sugar-water.
Hundreds of years ago, Middle Easterners drank a mixture of rose petals and water called a julab. When the drink reached the Mediterranean, it became an instant favorite, and quickly spread across Europe during the late 1600s. And yet, drinks and words can both be made to taste. Rose petals were replaced with the more commonly available mint, and the newly-anglicized mint julep was born, albeit without alcohol.
Like most things European, the mint julep made the pilgrimage to America where Southeastern farmers are credited with adding alcohol and sugar. However, this is where details gets fuzzy. The mint julep is unapologetically a bourbon drink. However, some think the drink stopped in the Caribbean to take pointers from the mojito before settling in the South, and there are numerous accounts of the drink being made with gin, cognac and rum as late as the mid-1800s. Around this time, Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky notoriously argued against rum in favor of his home-state’s bourbon, and some credit him for winning that argument. No one knows for sure how bourbon became the drink’s staple, but it’s most likely because it tasted delicious. Farmers would drink one first thing in the morning. Doctors prescribed mint juleps for nausea and difficulty swallowing. The variable uses of the mint julep were endless.
In 1888, Marvin Stone invented the modern drinking straw because the reed of the ryegrass he was sipping through was ruining the flavor of his mint julep. However, the mint julep planted itself in the heart of Southerners and has only grown since.
The mint julep became the official drink of the Kentucky Derby in 1938. That same year, the Derby began selling the trademark cup with the drink, because people were stealing them anyway.
Leaves from 4-5 mint sprigs
2 sugar cubes or 1/2 oz simple syrup
2 1/2 oz Four Roses Single Barrel Bourbon
mint sprig for garnish
Place the mint and simple syrup or sugar into a julep cup, Collins glass or double old-fashioned glass. Muddle well to dissolve the sugar and release the oil and aroma of the mint. Add the bourbon. Fill with crushed ice and stir well until the glass becomes frosty. Garnish with the mint sprig.