Mint Juleps, A Springtime Cocktail for the Ponies
Every first Saturday in May since 1875, Kentuckians, horse-racing fans, and countless celebrities have converged on Louisville, KY to mark the commencement of spring by cheering the thoroughbred racehorses at the Kentucky Derby.
And since 1938, the Mint Julep has been a staple as well as the official cocktail for what has been called “the most exciting two minutes in sports”.
The Mint Julep is an original American creation (much like it’s main ingredient, bourbon), and was popularized by Kentucky Senator Henry Clay in the 18th century.
It’s a simple cocktail, made from a combination of bourbon whiskey, mint, sugar, and ice. But the exact method and proportions seem to be up for debate every year. In fact, if you ask 10 Kentuckians how to make a Mint Julep, you will likely get 10 different answers.
- Place one bruised mint leaf and a dash of sugar in the bottom of an old-fashioned glass and muddle
- Fill with crushed ice
- Fill to top with a heavy pour of straight Kentucky bourbon
A lot of bars and restaurants will serve Mint Juleps in the spring time, but they often don’t satisfy, by serving the polar opposite of the above recipe. They are light on the bourbon and heavy with sugar syrup to better cater to modern palates.
For most people today, the best Mint Julep can be found somewhere in the middle.
My favorite Mint Julep recipe:
- Cook up a batch of mint-infused simple syrup (mint, sugar, and water)
- Pour one shot of the syrup and 2.5 shots of bourbon into a tall julep cup with crushed ice
- Rub a bruised mint leaf around the rim of the glass
- Garnish with a fresh sprig of mint lightly dusted with powdered sugar
I find that having the mint-infused syrup cooked up ahead of time makes serving a large party much easier. Also, it helps diffuse the mint flavor more evenly through the drink, which makes it go down easier for those unfortunate few less accustomed to drinking whiskey, while not sacrificing the strength of a proper Mint Julep.
Opinions can differ greatly on which bourbon to use for a Mint Julep, and there is no gospel. However, in my opinion, it is best to use a drier & woodier tasting bourbon, like Woodford Reserve. This balances well with the sweetness already present in the drink.
Much like many bourbon cocktails, I find that using a sweeter bourbon with additional sugar/syrup added to the drink is often overkill. A well-balanced cocktail demands that no single flavor smother the others, and by using a drier bourbon, we can better accomplish that balance.
Often overlooked, the Julep Cup plays an equally important role in the proper enjoyment of a Mint Julep.
The cups in which Mint Juleps are served range from elegant and traditional sterling silver julep cups to more common but less traditional glassware. There are also pewter, silver-plated and nickel-plated cups available that work just as well.
A solid sterling silver Julep Cup is the most traditional and eye-catching of the choices, yet they can retail for anywhere from $400 for a basic, unadorned silver cup to $1000 for the fancier really traditional ones. They can make a fantastic collector’s item or special gift, but it is unlikely you will break out a set of 12 at your next Derby party. However, a sterling silver julep cup would be a wonderful, decorative collector’s item for any horse racing or bourbon enthusiast.
While not commonplace, these sterling silver works of art are reserved for special occasions only or serve as decorative centerpieces — unless you happen to be sitting on Millionaire’s Row at Churchill Downs. (we can dream, right?)
Silver-plated, nickel-plated, and pewter mint julep cups are far more affordable and still capture the old-time essence of the mint julep experience. Many can be found for $30 to $50, sometimes even a little cheaper if you’re lucky.
And if you’re more concerned about the drink itself than how it’s served, you can get a serviceable stainless steel or glass julep cup. The stainless julep cups usually run $15-20 a piece whereas glass ones can be found as cheap as 5 bucks per glass if you buy a set. (you can also use a Collins or highball glass, it doesn’t have to be officially marketed as a julep glass)
In closing, I’ll leave you with a bit of trivia. If you have ever had a “gulab jamun” dessert at an Indian or Persian restaurant, you have tasted a surprising connection to the Julep. “Gulab” is actually the origin of the word julep. While julep usually implies a sweet and sometimes medicinal drink, gulab means rosewater. And coincidentally, the winning horse of the Kentucky Derby is draped with a blanket of 554 red roses, hence why some also call the Derby the “Race for the Roses”.
Anyway, with that don’t forget to equip yourself for your next Kentucky Derby party. You can’t make a perfect mint julep without a traditional julep cup. Let me know if you have any questions…
Buy Your Mint Juleps Cups (Amazon.com)
- Solid Sterling Silver [$395]
- Silver-Plated [$42.50]
- Pewter [$42.49]
- Nickel-Plated [$18.95]
- Stainless Steel [$34.95 for a set of 2]
- Glass [$35 for a set of 4]
- Official 2011 Kentucky Derby Glass [$4.95 each]