Thoroughbreds, hats and juleps are the trifecta of tradition that grace the Churchill Downs the first Saturday of every May. This is the Kentucky Derby, a place where the best of the best compete for the most coveted title in the racing world. And a race which is celebrated with one cocktail, a drink which has become synonymous with the derby: The Mint Julep. According to organizers of the Derby, over 120,000 Juleps will be served at Churchill Dows over the two-day weekend event.
If mention of the Kentucky Derby instantly brings about images of well-healed spectators sipping on frosty mint juleps, then the mention of a mint julep evokes images of green sprigs of mint, dew covered sliver cups, stately gentlemen on lush Southern lawns. But what is now reserved for one day a year, was once one of the most popular cocktails served in this country. The Cosmopolitan of its day. And it wasn’t just reserved for the south, the Julep was popular in northern urban cities just as it was on southern plantations.
The word julep was for centuries applied to a medical treatment. A concoction prescribed by a doctor to his sick patient to cure a variety of ailments. Sometime in the 18th-Century, the Julep in America became a morning nip, something much closer to a cocktail than a medicinal cure. Soon mint found its way into the drink and eventually a formula for the julep developed. A Julep is a category of drink, meaning that it has a prescribed structure and methodology, but the base spirit can be swapped out for another. For example a thirsty customer could call for a Julep made with rum or cognac. But in the heart of the south, in the land of bourbon, to make a julep with anything but the local spirit would be unthinkable.
Yet, the word Julep also stirs words of debate, a gentlemanly debate of course. There are questions of if the mint should be muddled, infused into the sugar, or simply there as a garnish and not in the body of the drink at all. However, this is not a place for debate, simply some information of this world famous race and its tradition.
Since 1939 Churchill Downs has promoted the Mint Juelp as the signature drink of the derby. Although nowadays some short-cuts are taken to make the drink en masse to accommodate the thousands of thirsty spectators what follows is simply my preferred way to prepare a julep.
Recipe: Bourbon Mint Julep
- In the bottom of a silver julep cup add 4 or 5 fresh mint leaves along with 1 oz of simple syrup (1 to 1 ratio). Gently press the mint, making sure not to tear or bruise the mint.
- Add 2 oz of strong bourbon.
- Fill the cup with crushed ice and stir until the outside of the cup is frosted. The level of drop, so add more ice until it there is a glistening mound crowning the cup.
- Select a few fresh bunches of mint and plunge close together into the ice.
- Place a straw into the julep close to the mint and cut the straw, if necessary, so that its length is just taller than that of the mint leaves.
- Always use the freshest mint possible, discard brown, dried and limp looking mint
- Placement of the straw is key, a drinker’s nose should be buried in the mint
- Use a higher-proof bourbon, 100 proof or more. The crushed ice will water down the julep and bring down the proof. Starting with an 80-proof bourbon will create a weak watered down drink.