Whether you’re going all-out for a Kentucky Derby party this year or could care less who wins the famed race at Churchill Downs, something we should all have in common is the delicious drink called a mint julep.
A mint julep is traditionally made with just four ingredients: mint leaves, bourbon, sugar and crushed ice. Typically, the fresh mint is muddled at the bottom of the glass before adding the other ingredients. So, kind of like a Southern version of a mojito. Originally, juleps were served in silver or pewter cups, meant to be held by the bottom and top edges so frost could form on the outside of the cup. Today, a highball or old-fashioned glass will do just fine.
The mint julep is a true American tradition, dating back to the 18th century South. Being able to serve a drink over ice indicated wealth, as did the traditional silver cup. The word “julep” more generally refers to any sweet drink, especially something with medicinal properties. This makes sense since the mint variety was used centuries ago as a cure for aching stomachs and difficulty swallowing. The julep was also a popular breakfast-time drink amongst Virginia high society in the 1800s, as well as by farmers for a caffeine-like jolt in the morning.
Some say that the mint julep came around when a Kentucky man was searching near the Mississippi River for water to add to his bourbon, and found wild mint instead. Others say that the mint julep was somehow inspired by a Middle Eastern drink called a julab, made with water and rose petals.
Even if you’re not a fan of the Derby, I’m guessing you realize how closely associated this bourbon cocktail is with the event. The drink has been promoted by Churchill Downs since 1938, and they sell over 100,000 juleps every year during the Kentucky Oaks and the Kentucky Derby. Since Kentucky is the birthplace of bourbon whiskey, it’s logical that a bourbon-based cocktail has become a symbol for one of the state’s most iconic events. As early as 1816, you could win a silver julep cup at Kentucky county fairs, further fueling the minty connection.
If you visit Churchill Downs and order a mint julep today, you’ll get a ready-to-serve cocktail made with Early Times Kentucky Whiskey, who has been the official supplier of the drink for the last 20 years. Fun fact: you can buy an extra-premium julep at the Derby for just $1,000, which comes in a gold-plated cup and is made with Woodford Reserve bourbon, mint imported from Ireland, spring water ice cubes from the Bavarian Alps, and sugar from Australia.
If you’re not trying to shell out thousands of dollars for a taste of the Kentucky Derby, make your own with our easy recipe.