I’m willing to bet (not just because the Kentucky Derby is happening right now) that about 90% of the people reading this don’t know why the Mint Julep is the official drink of the Kentucky Derby.
It goes a little something like this. Hundreds of years ago, Arabic people created a drink called a “julab” and it was made with water and rose petals. It was refreshing and aromatic because of the delicate leaves and scent. This julab was then introduced to the Mediterranean area, where those peoples replaced the rose with mint, a plant that grows abundantly there. It skyrocketed in popularity throughout Europe and eventually spread to America. Around the 18th century, farmers (mostly in Louisiana) used the mint julep as a morning drink. Believe it or not, it’s said by historians to have been an equivalent for coffee!
It became especially popular in Kentucky, perhaps because of their best-known export, since according the Kentucky Distiller’s association, 95% of the world’s bourbon is from KY. This may be why the cocktail claimed the title of Kentucky Derby official drink in 1938. In keeping with the Southern tradition of spearmint (not just mint for a true Mint Julep!), we muddled it, threw in some crushed ice, poured in some Wild Turkey Bourbon (of course, feel free to use the Pappy you have lying around), drizzled some simple syrup over that and a couple tablespoons of water. It should be noted that in the craft cocktail world, it’s a fiery debate over the timing of the mint addition.
One faction stands for the muddling of the mint with the sugar and water. Another school of thought supports mint-infused simple syrup. The third philosophy, probably made up of purist Kentuckians, think that mixing bourbon with anything is a downright sin.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning editor and writer of The Louisville Courier-Journal, famously said this: “Pluck the mint gently from its bed, just as the dew of the evening is about to form upon it… Prepare the simple syrup and measure out a half-tumbler of whiskey. Pour the whiskey into a well-frosted silver cup, throw the other ingredients away and drink the whiskey.”
Here’s the ABC recipe. It produces a fine mint julep, one that’s worth betting on.
3 sprigs Fresh mint
1 tsp Water
1 tsp Superfine sugar
2 oz Bourbon whiskey
Muddle 2 mint sprigs, the water and the sugar in a highball glass or use a silver julep cup. Fill the glass with ice and pour in the bourbon. Garnish with the remaining mint sprig.
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