The Kentucky Derby Mint Julep

By Staff

<p>This cocktail's not just for girls.</p>

Did you know over 120,000 mint juleps are served during the Kentucky Derby each year, easily making this cocktail the horse crowd’s number one drink of choice?! The race’s official refreshment, mint juleps have their cocktail roots deep in American history. Which makes the julep classic, yes, but never a dull moment: there’s nothing staid about a Derby julep. talks to James Beard Award–winning Dale DeGroff, aka “King Cocktail,” a former bartender at New York’s Rainbow Room and president and founder of the Museum of the American Cocktail, about the julep’s yesteryear lore and present-day applications for your Derby libations enjoyment. What makes the mint julep such an all-American drink?

Dale DeGroff: History, really. The first American juleps date back to the dawn of the early 19th century and were made with cognac or peach brandy and often topped with a splash of rum. By the middle of the 19th century, bourbon became established as a popular American spirit and became the base of the mint julep. The mint julep is a drink claimed by the entire Southern United States, but Kentucky popularized the mint julep in the 20th century. What does “julep” even mean? When did people start using the word to describe a cocktail?

DeGroff: The word “julep” comes from the Arabic word “julab,” meaning rosewater. In the 1862 edition of BonVivant’s Companion, Jerry Thomas speaks about the julep as a peculiarly American beverage introduced to England by Captain Marryat. The Captain’s favorite method was to put a dozen sprigs of tender mint shoots in a tumbler with a spoonful of white sugar and equal portions of peach and common brandy, fill to one third, and then fill with “pounded ice.” Is the mint julep a woman’s drink?

DeGroff: Nope—it’s a human’s drink. The misconception it’s a woman’s drink always makes me laugh because it’s really a cocktail based around a spirit with such a strong backbone like bourbon. The Derby will serve a ton of these on Saturday—to both men in bow ties and women in their fancy hats! What gives a mint julep its kick?

DeGroff: A strong pour of bourbon. The mint provides a nice refreshing touch to the drink, but you should definitely use a bourbon with backbone on this one. I like Bulleit Bourbon because of its high rye content that creates a little bit more spice to stand up to the mint—making the perfect combination for a great julep. Is it necessary to serve it in a silver goblet? What if you’re plum out of silver goblets?

DeGroff: No silver goblets!? What a travesty! Yes, I suppose if you’re plum out of silver goblets a standard highball glass will do just fine. Just make sure you have some nice crushed ice as that’s imperative for a modern julep!

Below are some julep recipes through the last century as shared by renowned cocktail expert and President of the Museum of the American Cocktail Dale DeGroff.


1 tbs granulated sugar 2 tbs water 3 sprigs fresh mint 1.3 oz Cognac 2 dashes high-quality rum

PREPARATION: Dissolve the sugar into the water in a tall glass or a silver chalice julep cup. Add the mint and press gently in the sugared water to extract the flavor; remove the sprigs and set aside for the garnish. Add the cognac and then fill with powdered ice. Place the mint into the drink stem side down and dash with the rum. Set the drink aside for five minutes to frost.


1.3 oz Bulleit Bourbon 0.75 oz simple syrup or a teaspoon sugar 4 mint leaves and a sprig of mint

PREPARATION: Prepare some very cold, very dry powdered ice with chunks of ice and a canvas ice bag. Bruise the mint leaves in the bottom of a julep cup with sugar syrup. Add ice to the three-quarter mark and half of the bourbon. Stir to chill the julep cup. Top off with more powdered ice and remaining bourbon and continue to stir until the outside of the cup begins to freeze. Garnish with the mint sprig and set aside to rest while the julep cup freezes over on the outside. Pick up carefully to imbibe.


1.3 oz Bulleit Bourbon 4 mint leaves and one sprig of mint Lemon wheel Cut a lemon in half, then quarter and use three of the quarters in the drink 1-ounce simple syrup

PREPARATION: Muddle all ingredients except whiskey in a bar glass. Add whiskey and shake with ice. Strain into an ice-filled rocks glass and garnish with a sprig of mint and a lemon wheel.


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