This year, on Saturday, May 7, people with gather in the spring warmth of Kentucky at Churchill Downs for the 148th Kentucky Derby. The sartorial atmosphere will be over the top, with gentleman in dapper suits and ladies adorned with flamboyant hats. In the hand, many will hold a mint julep, frosting the glass with snow-powder ice and adding to the feeling of combined experience and celebration.
Churchill Downs estimates it serves 120,000 mint juleps over the two-day period of Kentucky Oaks and Kentucky Derby weekend. According to the Derby website, “That’s a feat that requires more than 10,000 bottles of Old Forester Mint Julep Ready-to-Serve Cocktail, 1,000 pounds of freshly harvested mint and 60,000 pounds of ice.”
The official drink of the Kentucky Derby as of 1938 – and served at the race since the track was built in 1875 – the mint julep is undeniably embedded in the culture of the American South. What’s not to love about a slightly sweet, slightly minty, boozy, ice-cold, porch-sitting beverage, cooling our bodies and numbing our minds in the blaze of a hot southern day?
The origin of the mint julep, however, does not come from the newly formed Americas, but most likely from ancient Persia as an elixir of rosewater. The word for rosewater is gulab (gol for rose and āb for water) and was thought to have medicinal benefits. Over time, variants of the word were used to describe many medicinal syrups infused with flowers and herbs.
As the drink migrated through the Arabic world and to Europe, it is thought that mint, indigenous to the area, became the chosen herb. Sugar syrup, honey, sorghum syrup, or any sweetener could be used depending on availability.
Most people think bourbon when they think of a mint julep. Like many cocktails, the spirits used at birth can shift over time depending on location, availability and even politics. The first juleps were made with cognac and peach brandy. In the 1862 “The Bartenders Guide,” Jerry Thomas’ mint julep recipe – among the assorted julep recipes, including a gin julep and a whiskey julep – calls for cognac and a dash of Jamaican rum.
Whatever the lineage, it’s around the late 1800s that bourbon becomes the mainstay in the modern mint julep. However, interpretation and experimentation are abundant.
There are many things to argue about when it comes to the perfect mint julep. Do you bruise the mint ahead of time or let the preparation in the glass extract the oils? How do you best prepare the ice? What kind of spirit is best? What kind of glass used? (A highball? A rocks glass? A dedicated julep cup?)
In an online interview with Peter Thomas Fornatale, famed mixologist Dale DeGroff says, “The Virginians used to say, ‘any man who would leave the mint in his mint julep would put scorpions in a baby’s bed.’” So, according to DeGroff, Virginians would rather not have the mint while those in Kentucky are happy to let it linger.
It should also be noted that DeGroff – as well as the folks at Glacier Distilling Company – use a massive, wooden hammer dedicated to pulverizing their ice to the perfect, snow-like powder. Don’t we, residents of the Mountain West, appreciate a strong beverage with some fresh powder on a spring day?
Where to find it: Find the Straight Bourbon Whiskey at Whistling Andy Distillery, 8541 Montana Highway 35, Bigfork and North Fork rye and black label at Glacier Distilling Company, 10237 U.S. Highway 2, Coram. Or visit www.wistlingandy.com and www.glacierdistilling.com for more information and spirit locations.
2 tender sprigs of fresh mint (or more)
1/2 ounce simple syrup
2 ounces bourbon*
In the bottom of a glass or julep cup, add mint and simple syrup and press or gently muddle. Add a dash of bourbon at the bottom. Fill with crushed ice to the top. Add rest of bourbon. Top with ice. Garnish with a bouquet of fresh mint.
*Bourbon – especially at the 100 proof spot – is the go-to spirit in the modern mint julep. For a Flathead Valley twist, try the Straight Bourbon Whiskey from Whistling Andy Distillery. A lower corn component cuts back on the sweetness while developing a complex back palate. Or experiment with the North Fork Black Label – a rye aged for five years with a final finish in a bourbon barrel – from Glacier Distilling Company.
Pub Talk: Some Julep Tips, Tricks, Do’s and Don’ts
• Don’t mash the mint. It’s gentle bruising to extract the oils
• Pull the bottom mint leaves from the stem to use for the muddling. Use the top leaves, still attached to the stem, to create a large bouquet for the garnish.
• Spearmint will maintain its shape and won’t wilt as fast.
• Try honey as a sweetener to round out the sweet notes.
• Drink through a straw! It will enhance the sweet and mint combination.
• Julep cups should be held by the top or the bottom so the ice can frost the outside.