Have a Drink: Mint Julep


More than just the traditional cocktail of the Kentucky Derby, the history of the mint julep goes back about 300 years in America

Mint Julep cocktail | Relampago’s Rating: ?

A Southern classic and a staple of the Kentucky Derby is the Mint Julep. Each year 120,000 mint juleps are served at the Derby in Churchill Downs. This cocktail has a long history, originating in the 1700s in the present day United States. Originally a drink for the elite, i.e. those who could afford ice back in the day, the drink has become an icon of the American South. A book from 1840 written by novelist, British Royal Navy officer, and acquaintance of Charles Dickens, Frederick Marryat describes the perfect mint julep experience.

There are many varieties [of Mint Julep], such as those composed of Claret [and] Madiera, but the ingredients of the real mint-julep are as follows. I learnt how to make them, and succeeded pretty well. Put into a tumbler about a dozen sprigs of the tender shoots of mint, upon them put a spoonful of white sugar, and equal proportions of peach and common brandy, so as to fill it up one-third, or perhaps a little less. Then take rasped or pounded ice, and fill up the tumbler. Epicures rub the lips of the tumbler with a piece of fresh pine-apple, and the tumbler itself is very often incrusted outside with stalactites of ice. As the ice melts, you drink.

As Marryat alludes to, there are many ways to make a mint julep, and this method reaches back to 1916 in Virginia.

…the famous old barroom, which was approached by a spiral staircase. Here in this dark, cool room, scented with great masses of fragrant mint that lay upon mountains of crushed ice, in the olden days were created the White Sulphur mint julep and the Virginia toddy, for which this place was famous the world over. The mint juleps were not the composite compounds of the present day. They were made of the purest French brandy, limestone water, old-fashioned cut loaf sugar, crushed ice, and young mint the foliage of which touched your ears…

Most modern recipes use bourbon rather than gin, as the following highly-rated recipe does. According to Bill Samuels, whose recipe is rated 4.8 out of 5 stars, this is how you make the perfect mint julep:

  • 4 cups bourbon
  • 2 bunches fresh spearmint
  • 1 cup distilled water
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • Powdered sugar

To prepare mint extract, remove about 40 small mint leaves. Wash and place in a small bowl. Cover with 3 ounces bourbon. Allow the leaves to soak for 15 minutes. Then gather the leaves in paper toweling. Thoroughly wring the mint over the bowl of whisky. Dip the bundle again and repeat the process several times. To prepare simple syrup, mix 1 cup of granulated sugar and 1 cup of distilled water in a small saucepan. Heat to dissolve sugar. Stir constantly so the sugar does not burn. Set aside to cool. To prepare mint julep mixture, pour 3 1/2 cups of bourbon into a large glass bowl or glass pitcher. Add 1 cup of the simple syrup to the bourbon. Now begin adding the mint extract 1 tablespoon at a time to the julep mixture. Each batch of mint extract is different, so you must taste and smell after each tablespoon is added. You are looking for a soft mint aroma and taste-generally about 3 tablespoons. When you think it’s right, pour the whole mixture back into the empty liter bottle and refrigerate it for at least 24 hours to “marry” the flavors. To serve the julep, fill each glass (preferably a silver mint julep cup) 1/2 full with shaved ice. Insert a spring of mint and then pack in more ice to about 1-inch over the top of the cup. Then, insert a straw that has been cut to 1-inch above the top of the cup so the nose is forced close to the mint when sipping the julep. When frost forms on the cup, pour the refrigerated julep mixture over the ice and add a sprinkle of powdered sugar to the top of the ice. Serve immediately.

This is obviously a complicated recipe, so be sure to attempt this when you have a lot of free time on your hands. Juleps are traditionally served in silver cups, but you often find them in regular old glasses, too, in modern times. It is a strong drink as it uses a lot of bourbon, but reviewers say it is delicious. I’ve personally never had one, but the recipe looked so appetizing and mint juleps have such an extensive history in the States I have to try to make one soon. Enjoy!

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