This Cooling Cocktail is Traditional for Kentucky Derby Day
The Kentucky Derby is among the most famous horse races in the US (and part of the Triple Crown Series that also includes the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes). Traditionally held the first Saturday in May, it’s the first big US race of the season. Although the horses run for only a few minutes (the course measures 1¼ miles), most of those who attend make an all-day party of the event.
While all sorts of beverages typically are on offer, the Mint Julep is “the” drink at the Kentucky Derby. This ice-cold cocktail traditionally is served in a silver cup — which the imbiber holds by the bottom and top edges in order not to disturb the frosty coating of condensation that develops on the outside. I’ve never felt the need to invest in silver cups just to serve a Mint Julep, so I generally use an Old-Fashioned (rocks) glass instead. A Collins (tall) glass also works well.
Even if you aren’t traveling to Churchill Downs this weekend to attend the Kentucky Derby, you can still relax and enjoy this cool and refreshing drink. In the northern hemisphere, warm weather has finally arrived, so we can celebrate it with this cooler. In the southern hemisphere, you may be enjoying the last warm days before winter arrives, so what better way to say goodbye to summer than with this refreshing drink?
And you don’t need a silver cup. Really.
Recipe: Mint Julep
Nowadays, we call all mixed drinks “cocktails.” But historically, that’s not correct. A cocktail originally was just one type of mixed drink. There were also cobblers, slings, highballs, and many more — including juleps (which are a form of “smash” — yet another drink category). So what distinguishes a julep? Well, usually we muddle mint at the bottom of the serving glass (typically with some sugar) before adding ice and liquor. Doing so releases the mint’s volatile oils, and thus helps flavor the drink. You can use a “muddler” for this purpose (it looks kind of like a small baseball bat — every liquor store stocks them). A long-handled spoon works too. Just make sure your glass has a tempered (or at least thick) bottom so you don’t risk cracking it when you muddle the mint.
We tend to associate whiskey (specifically bourbon) with juleps, but you can use any liquor. Last year we discussed The Mojito Cocktail, which is essentially a julep made with white rum instead of bourbon. Juleps made with gin used to be common, though they have fallen out of favor these days.
Most recipes for Mint Juleps include a lot of booze — typically 3 or 4 ounces of bourbon. That’s too much for me to handle in one drink, so I’ve reduced the amount. Many people like their Mint Juleps on the sweet side. I prefer mine less so (and my recipe reflects that), but feel free to add more sugar. Consider making mint-flavored simple syrup for this drink — you’ll get much more mint flavor than the standard recipe produces. In the Notes, I include a recipe for making mint simple syrup.
This recipe serves 1, and takes about 5 minutes to prepare.
- 8 - 12 fresh mint leaves (spearmint is the mint of choice)
- 1 teaspoon granulated sugar or Simple Syrup (if you like your drinks on the sweet side, use 2 teaspoons or more)
- 2 ounces bourbon (in this case, better bourbon makes a better drink, so use good-quality stuff; Maker’s Mark works well, though I’m partial to Buffalo Trace — it’s drier than Maker’s Mark)
- 2 or 3 sprigs of mint for garnish (not really optional; see Notes)
- Add the mint leaves and sugar or Simple Syrup to a tall glass. Muddle the mint leaves very briefly (maybe 5 seconds). You want to just bruise them; if you muddle them too much, they turn bitter.
- Fill the glass to the ¾ mark with crushed ice (the more finely crushed, the better). Add bourbon and stir briefly to chill the glass. Top off with more ice if necessary.
- Add mint sprigs for garnish, and a short straw (you want it to just clear the mint sprigs; that way, as you sip you’ll smell the mint’s aroma). Serve.
- Use enough sugar in this drink so it tastes good to you. I tend to prefer less sweetness in my drinks, but many people like more. Simple Syrup comes in handy here. If, after making the drink, you want extra sweetness, it’s easy to add a bit more syrup — it will dissolve almost instantly.
- To make mint simple syrup, add 1 cup of sugar and 1 cup of water to a sauce pan. Add a good handful of mint and stir frequently until the mixture just comes to a simmer. Turn down the heat, cover the pot, and let the mixture slowly simmer for another 5 minutes (no more than 10). Allow it to cool, then remove the mint and strain the simple syrup into a bottle. Store in the refrigerator, where it will keep for a month or so.
- I almost always use Simple Syrup (rather than granulated sugar) in drinks because it dissolves much better. Granulated sugar that fails to dissolve completely can make drinks somewhat gritty. However, that grittiness can be a virtue in a muddled cocktail. When you muddle granulated sugar with mint leaves, the grinding granules help release some of the mint’s oil.
- In a Mint Julep, the sprigs of mint garnish gracing the top of the glass are functional (and thus not optional, IMO). The idea is that you’ll poke your nose into the garnish as you sip your drink, which allows you to inhale some of the mint aroma. This enhances the mintiness of the cocktail, adding considerably to the pleasure of drinking it.
- There are many variations on the Mint Julep. One I particularly like comes from David Wondrich. He suggests floating ½ ounce of dark Jamaica rum on top of the drink (try Meyer’s Rum). This adds sensational flavor, IMO.
Mint Julep Lore
Juleps have been around for centuries in one form or another. Gary Regan, in The Joy of Mixology, reports that the word “julep” was used in England as far back as 1400 to mean simple syrup (it’s derived from the Persian golâb, which means rose water). In the US, the Mint Julep originally was a regional drink, served in the southern states.
As noted above, juleps don’t need to be made with bourbon. In fact, they probably weren’t made that way until the late 1700s (when bourbon became known as, well, bourbon). Before that time, rum (dark) was probably the spirit of choice, although Regan reports that both peach brandy and regular brandy were common in early forms of the drink.
Mint Juleps are a natural when warm weather arrives, so it’s not surprising that they have become linked to late-spring and summer events. In addition to the first Saturday in May (Kentucky Derby day), Regan notes several other dates on which the Mint Julep figures prominently — including July 4th, Independence Day in the US.
May 28 “marks the opening of Julep season as celebrated by members of the General P.G.T. Beauregard Marching and Burial Society.” (Regan observes that there’s no mention of a closing date, so presumably the Mint Julep is in season all year round for this group!)
And don’t forget June 1, which is Mint Julep day at New College, Oxford. How did that happen, you ask? Well, in 1845, one William Heyward Trapier journeyed to England with several casks of bourbon as part of his luggage (he clearly wasn’t a Scotch drinker). He visited New College, where he “was surprised to find out that nobody . . . knew how to make a Mint Julep.” So he tutored them. Ever since then, they’ve observed the day in his honor. For years, they even reserved a chair for Trapier, just in case he might happen to return for a swig of julep with the boys.
How about here at Kitchen Riffs Central? When do we drink Mint Juleps? Well, this is such a great warm-weather drink, I’ll happily quaff it anytime I have fresh mint in my garden and the temperature starts moving into the “I need to cool off” zone.
My mint is lush and rampant at the moment, thank you very much, and the thermometer has topped 80 degrees Fahrenheit.
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Looks so pretty and refreshing!
Hi Chis, it's really a pretty drink. And a great way to use mint. Thanks for your comment.
A classic drink, re-interpreted! Thank you, it's so fresh and inviting. Great pictures!
Hi La Torontoise, it's a terrific drink - particularly if you like bourbon! Thanks for the comment.
Yum this sounds great. I used to drink Bourbon and coke all the time and loved it, then later switch to Scotch and water to watch the calories. Of course now I rarely drink. This looks so refreshing too!
Nice! I am not usually a Bourbon fan but I LOVE Mint Juleps!
I love mint julep and any excuse to drink it :-) Yours looks particularly appealing - great photos! Cocktails can be so difficult to capture, but you always manage beautifully.
Hi Vicki, both of those are good drinks! It is too bad that booze contains as many calories as it does. :-( Thanks for the comment.
Hi Alyssa, mint juleps are wonderful, aren't they? So refreshing! Thanks for the comment.
Hi Katherine, isn't this a wonderful drink? In one sense cocktails are easy to photograph because I know exactly what I need to do. On the other hand, actually doing that can be quite difficult. So I always find cocktail photos challenging, but loads of fun. Thanks for the kind words, and comment.
I love your glass! And I much prefer drinking out of glass than metal. This drink would certainly pack some punch! I'm quite sure one would knock me around quite a bit. If people stay all day at the races, I wonder how many of these they consume xx
Well, some of you may be celebrating 80 degrees but some of us are still being pounded by snow. Denver's weather had been ridiculous this year.But I like mint juleps, and I love the idea of Meyer's rum floating on top. And my mint has actually died back again with this crazy weather!
My goodness how I love a mint julep. I'm such a fan of Mint in cocktails. Great cocktail post as always!!
Hi Charlie, that is a nice glass. Over 100 years old! And too many of these is, well, too many! Thanks for the comment.
Hi Abbe, make one of these and pretend it's 80! The temperature is going to dip here again, but not near freezing, thank goodness. The float of Meyer's is wonderful on this. Thanks for the comment.
Hi Amanda, mint works well in cocktails, doesn't it? A real favorite of mine. Thanks for the kind words, and comment.
How I adore your photography ! Your drink looks like the star of the show :)
Spring is a good time for horse racing carnival. The cocktail looks very refreshing! Yeah I don't think you need a silver cup for this. It suits very well with your glass...Though I wonder whether whole ambiance changes with the silver cup... I guess I'll never know, since I don't want to invest in silver cup either. :)
Hi Suborna, thanks so much for your kind words!
Hi Sue, the frosted silver mugs do look pretty. Although I actually like to see the color of my drink, so they don't really appeal to me at all. And of course there is that whole expense issue with the mugs! Thanks for the comment.
Well, Ah declayah, you've treated us all so well today, Sir. (fanning myself to prevent catching the vapors)
Ah'd nevah drink a mint julep from anything othah than a silvah cup, mahself.
As a yank in oz, I'd drink it in whatever I could get it in :)
Already planning a Saturday afternoon mint julep to watch the derby with! I think I have just enough mint for a couple of drinks. Yours look SO GOOD! Interesting information on "cocktails" and Mint Juley lore. I always learn something here!
Hi Maureen, :-) Very funny! Thanks for the comment.
Hi MJ, sounds like a fun afternoon! Glad you enjoyed the lore. ;-) Thanks for the comment.
Interesting history on the Mint Julep. The drink looks delightful.
Hi Dawn, isn't cocktail history fun? And this drink is indeed delightful! Thanks for the comment.
I'm not aware of the history of most drinks. Nice that I'm know these facts about Kentucky Derby :D
The drink looks refreshing. I love the mocktail version of Mint julep, I'm sure the cocktail version is great too.
Beautiful photos John and very much enjoyed reading your post! :)
A refreshing cocktail and interesting history!
I loved mint juleps...but haven't had one for quite a few months now :-) I guess these pictures will just have to satiate my desire! Thank you for sharing both the drink and the history!
I want mine in a silver cup. And to think I am always pulling spearmint to stop it from taking over my garden!
Hi Zoe, I'm just full of useless info, aren't I? ;-) Loads of fun to learn this stuff, though. Thanks for the comment.
Hi Lail, I've not had a mocktail version of this drink - I'd be curious to try it. The flavor of this drink is actually bourbon-heavy (most of the mint "taste" comes from inhaling the mint garnish fragrance as you drink. I'll have to go looking for the mocktail! Thanks for the comment.
Hi Gourmantine, thanks so much for those kind words, and comment.
Hi Rosa, it really is refreshing - I love mint! Thanks for the comment.
Hi Monet, you'll be able to indulge again in another month or so. Maybe aim to have one of these on July 4th? ;-) Thanks for the comment.
Hi Claudia, I must say the silver cup is indeed the classy presentation! Spearmint really takes over, doesn't it? We have ours confined to an area where there are 3 natural barriers, so we just have to be worried about it escaping on one side only - sure cuts down on the "weeding"!! Thanks for the comment.
This is one handsome drink that is very easy to prepare. Post and drink to enjoy. Thank you, John! :)
Hi Ray, it's a fun drink, that's for sure. Love the mint! Thanks for the comment.
What a pretty drink! I've heard of it and the Kentucky Derby but have yet to see or taste the drink. Thanks for sharing. Your gorgeous photos make me want to go make one.
For a number of years, I tended bar and was assigned the afternoon of the Kentucky Derby. I can't tell you how many mint juleps I served each year and I learned to love them. It's been some time since I enjoyed one, John, and I think it's time I did something about that. Thanks for the reminder.
Beautiful photos, John. I'm craving for a drink now :D
Hi John! You know, I've lived in Maryland for almost 30 years and have only been to the Preakness once. Though I don't really remember it. Must have had one too many mint juleps on that day! Such a classic and refreshing drink! And let me ask you...does Mrs. KR help with your food styling or is it all you because I really love the first and second photos with the bunch of mint at the top and that one perfect leaf sideways on the inside! What a fantastic post! : )
You always have interesting posts. I come here not just for the food/drink but for the stories and interesting facts about them.
I don't really care for mints in cocktails. I don't know what's with mint that I don't really care about.
I love the glass too... and of course the shots. Great post as always!
Hi Nancy, it's a fun drink! And wonderful in warmer weather. Thanks for the comment.
Hi John, this drink isn't as good when you make it by the pitcher, IMO, but had I been in your shoes I would have been tempted! Thanks for the comment.
Hi Kiran, thanks for the kind words, and comment. And sorry about that craving thing. ;-)
Hi Anne, I do all of the food styling, although sometimes Mrs K R contributes idea. And arranging those leaves, testing the light, rearranging etc etc takes time! Thanks for the comment.
Hi Malou, lots of people don't like mint in cocktails. So this isn't a drink you'd like (although the mint flavor is pretty understated). But I agree it's fun to read about food and drink! Thanks for the kind words, and comment.
Hi John! Well, we've already discussed this drink earlier but still wanted to stop by and tell you how gorgeous yours looks. They are all over the net right now, but yours gets my vote. Beautiful all around...lovely photos too.
Hi Nazneen, thanks for your vote! :-) And thanks for stopping by and commenting.
John you are making me wish it was turning in to summer here. Lucky for us we can get mint all year round, though this julep would be perfect on a warm evening. Great post. :-)
I have never had a mint julep. Probably because I am not a fan of bourbon. But, for the sake of tradition, I will definitely put it on my alcohol bucket list!
Hi Lizzie, it will be summer eventually! Very cool you can get mint all year round. Ours dies in November or December, and just came back to life a month or two ago. Thanks for the comment.
Hi Laura, if you're not a fan of bourbon, you might not like this drink - the dominating flavor is bourbon, sweetness next (from the sugar), and mint last. You might want to try making mint simple syrup if you make this - that's so delicious by itself, and great in this cocktail! Thanks for the comment.
I've only had a Mint Julep once, and it was sooooo sweet, I couldn't even finish it. Yours sounds much more balanced. I gotta give this classic another try.
Hi Carolyn, these tend to be sweet, alas. Mine has some sweetness, but not a lot. This is definitely worth another try, if you like bourbon. ;-) Thanks for the comment.
This looks so refreshing and it certainly photographs better in a clear glass and not a silver one. I have never heard of a muddler but I can visualize what happens even though I have never muddled myself.
I believe I should try a Mint Julep sometime!
Hi Suzanne, there are only a few drinks out there that require a muddler, thank goodness! (It's a bit of a pain.) I know you like rum, and I'll bet if you substitute a nice amber rum for the bourbon this would taste wonderful. ;-) Thanks for the comment.
Hi Peachy, sounds like a great plan! Thanks for the comment.
I'm not really into the Kentucky Derby but definitely into the Mint Julep! :P It's so refreshing and your picture is stunning, as always. Really capture the "cool" of this drink!
Hi Amy, in truth the Kentucky Derby doesn't do much for me, either. But Mint Juleps do! Thanks for the kind words, and comment.
I love mint cocktail drinks, especially in such beautiful glassware! Gorgeous photos, especially the one with the black background!
Hi Julia, those black backgrounds really do make food "pop", don't they? Thanks for the kind words, and comment.
Perfect for the derby! I don't care much for the Kentucky derby, but it's a great excuse to get my mint julep on. Love your vivid photos. Great post John. :)
Hi Gomo, any opportunity to get one's mint julep on is worthwhile IMO. ;-) Thanks for the kind words, and comment.
Wow! What a wonderful looking drink! It was so hot today, I should have seen this earlier!
Hi Cathleen, that's OK - there will be more hot days! ;-) Thanks for the comment.
I want to come to your house! You're having a whole lot more fun then I am. :)
I've always wanted to go to the Kentucky Derby. It's on my horsey bucket list. We're visiting the Kentucky Horse Park in a couple of weeks on our way to Florida. We there briefly last year so we wanted to visit again. We've been lucky enough to visit Spruce Meadows in Alberta as well.
I can just picture myself sipping one of these gorgeous drinks sitting on a porch on a warm day.
Hi Kristi, we do enjoy a cocktail from time to time, that's for sure (mainly Friday evenings). Come any time - you'd be most welcome. ;-)
Hi Kim, if you have time while you're in Florida, you might want to wander up to Ocala - it's north of Orlando maybe an hour, hour and a half. Tons and tons of horse farms up that way - totally gorgeous animals. And yes, this drink on a porch on a warm day is bliss. ;-) Thanks for the comment.
Yey! Another delicious cocktail :D Can't wait for a weekend to try it with friends.
Hi Marta, the weekend can never arrive too soon! Enjoy. ;-) Thanks for the comment.
Even if I'll be (sadly enough)not able to attend the Kentucky Derby ,for sure I'll try this wonderful Cocktail!
Hi Daniela, the race takes about 2 minutes - luckily the cocktail lasts much longer! Thanks for the comment.
Somehow I never had mint julep...and I love mint drinks...I must try this soon since I have fresh mint.
Thanks for the recipe John!
Hi Juliana, it's a fun drink! A great use of fresh mint. ;-) Thanks for the comment.
Hi John, wow... that's a very refreshing drink. Look so good and mint is my favorite too. All your pictures are very well taken. 2 thumbs up for you.
Hi Amelia, it really is refreshing. Not to mention yummy. ;-) Thanks for the kind words, and comment.
My husband is right next to me, and he recognized the photos I was looking and said this must be "the cocktail guy"! Yep! You make all the cocktails so beautiful and delicious. Your trademark photos besides all the other cool photography! :)
Hi Nami, ;-) I do light a lot of the cocktail pictures in a similar way (because I like the way it looks!), and I guess that look is somewhat distinctive. Glad you and your husband enjoy them! Thanks for the kind words, and comment.
On the day of the race I had to order a mint Julep, they are so refreshing! I was never a bourbon girl, but now we buy a smoother bourbon, and one I find very delicious. So I love making, or drinking delicious bourbon drinks now:-) Your mint julep looks so beautiful! Thank you for sharing all the wonderful info, Take care, Terra
Hi Terra, there are a lot of different bourbons, some smoother than others, so it's definitely worth trying several until you find one that appeals. Glad you enjoyed the drink! Thanks for your comment.
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