The mint julep and its Kentucky Derby roots is the stuff of legends

Sorry, Cinco de Mayo, we love a good margarita , but we’re saving ourselves for Saturday’s Kentucky Derby and mint juleps. Call it Southern tradition and an excuse to mix fanciful hats and gingham with our bourbon. We love the Derby and its quintessential cocktail. But before you put on your hat and bow tie, let’s set the record straight about this minty concoction.

We did a little research on the mint julep with the help of Robert F. Moss and his newly released cocktail history book “Southern Spirits: Four Hundred Years of Drinking in the American South”. It turns out that not only is the mint julep not from Kentucky but it wasn’t originally made with bourbon or sipped on grand verandas. Like most classic cocktails, it started life as a medicinal toddy (brandy, sugar and eventually mint) to be thrown back in the morning to ward off disease and general aches and pains before the days of antibiotics and Advil. While you’ll have to read the book for the exacting details on the mint julep’s upbringing from toddy to tipple, here’s the Reader’s Digest version.

The cocktail’s origin seems to be Virginia’s tidewater region rather than the rolling hills of Kentucky’s horse country and was made with brandy or cognac before the great phylloxera epidemic wiped out France’s vineyards in the mid-1830s. The cognac and brandy shortage gave rise to bourbon widely being used as the drink’s base spirit. During that time, the cocktail was going through another transformation as city’s (rather than the bucolic Southern countryside) like Richmond, Charleston and New York began taking advantage of the burgeoning ice house industry. It was the use of finely crushed ice which thrust the toddy onto the fancy drinks category and out of the medicine cabinet. Why? Think a hot Atlanta day without air conditioning and the mint julep was the most refreshing cooling mechanism this side of 80 degrees. Ice was a luxury item.

So, how did the mint julep end up being a Kentucky Derby drink? Simply put, propaganda involving sweeping verandas, Colonel Sanders-like characters, pretty girls and a bourbon industry needing a boost in the years following Prohibition . The mint julep was waning in popularity by the beginning of the 20th century, having fallen out of fashion with city folks as it migrated to the country and plantations with their own ice houses. In 1936, Kentucky author and humorist, Irvin S. Cobb, told tale of his “old Kentucky home” in his cocktail page-turner, “Irvin S. Cobb’s Own Recipe Book,” for the purposes of boosting bourbon sales. Cobb evoked images of beautiful belles blissfully sitting on large, white porches while gentlemen sipped concoctions like mint juleps on a warm summer day. The mint julep finally made Kentucky its forever home in 1938 when Churchill Downs named it the official drink of the Kentucky Derby and the rest, as they say, is history.

Fun fact: Nearly 120,000 mint juleps are sold at Churchill Downs over the two-day period of the Kentucky Derby.

Cool off and wow your guests by making mint juleps for your Derby party on Saturday, May 7.

Mint Julep / Photo credit Morgan Tatum for JCT Kitchen and Bar

Mint Julep

2 oz. bourbon

½ oz. mint syrup (recipe follows)

Mint sprig

In a julep or rocks glass, add mint syrup. Pack glass with finely crushed ice. Pour bourbon over the ice and mound more ice until it tops the glass. Place a mint spring on the heel of your hand. With the other hand, slap the sprig over the drink to release essential oils. Garnish with the mint sprig.

Mint Syrup

1 cup sugar

1 cup water

10 to 12 fresh mint sprigs

Boil sugar and water together for 5 minutes, stirring often or until the sugar dissolves. Remove from heat and add mint sprigs. Let mixture cool completely. Pour into a glass container, cover and chill 24 hours in the refrigerator. Discard mint before use.

Looking for another bourbon cocktail to serve at your Derby party?

Brown Derby

2 oz. bourbon

1 oz. grapefruit juice

½ oz. rich honey syrup (recipe follows)

Chill cocktail glass by filling with ice. Meanwhile, pour all ingredients into a shaker filled with ice and shake to chill. Discard ice in glass. Strain shaker contents into glass.

Rich Honey Syrup

¾ cup honey

¼ cup water

Combine the honey and water in a saucepan on low heat. Stir until honey is smooth. Remove from heat and cool. Pour into a glass container, cover and refrigerate until chilled.

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