The Triple Crown of horse racing season has begun which means that spring is unquestionably upon us–not that spring doesn’t start extra early here in the Everglade State. It’s at this moment that I would like to take some time and reflect on that most Southern of all cocktails, the Mint Julep. The lens of history is quite misty on the origins of this cocktail, but the name is thought to have been derived from the Persian word “Gulab” which was a rosewater concoction but this is probably an old wives tale told to make the drink more mysterious.
The Mint Julep almost certainly originated in Virginia among the high society and plantation aristocracy sometime in the late 1700s and was probably an adaptation of its Cuban cousin the Mojito as they share many similarities. Originally prescribed as a cure for an ailing stomach it was found to make the harsh alcohol available at the time more palatable. In those days, the liquor of choice for the landed gentry in the United States was rum or brandy and the original recipe for the Mint Julep utilized these ingredients. Soon enough however, the drink caught on with the rest of the populous and they availed of the more affordable whiskeys they were used to drinking. The cocktail made it’s way to Kentucky and by 1816 county fairs were offering julep cups as the top prize. It’s at this time the Julep we are familiar with today (made with bourbon) came into being.
Everyone is familiar with the Mint Julep’s association with the Kentucky Derby and it wouldn’t be a proper Derby Day without spectators decked out in seersucker suits hoisting a cold Mint Julep and cheering on their favorite horse. Nobody is quite sure how this association began but it was a tradition at the Derby by 1938. This was the year that the original collectible glass was sold for 75 cents. Today, Woodford Reserve sells a collectible cup at the Derby for a munificent sum of $1,000.
The Derby is certainly the highlight of the Mint Julep, and during the 2-day event at Churchill Downs a staggering 100,000 Mint Juleps are consumed! Today, in honor of National Mint Julep Day, make your own Mint Julep. It’s fairly easy with just a collins glass and a few simple ingredients:
The Classic Kentucky Derby Mint Julep
5-6 Mint Leaves
2 Sugar Cubes
1 1/2 oz Bourbon or Whiskey
Place the mint leaves and sugar in the bottom of the glass and muddle to release mint flavor. Add bourbon, top off with crushed ice and garnish with a sprig of mint.
Louis Tamasi, ABC Fine Wine & Spirits – Jacksonville