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The Story Behind the Mint Julep: A Classic Southern Specialty

The Southern delicacy has been around for decades.
The Story Behind the Mint Julep: A Classic Southern Specialty

The Kentucky Derby is over for this year, and it was filled with some unprecedented drama, too. But the race’s signature drink, the mint julep, can be enjoyed throughout the summer and even year-round.

The coolness of mint mixed with the slow heat of bourbon makes the mint julep a delicious hot-weather beverage. But do you know how it became such an iconic Southern drink? Let’s pour up the sweet drink over ice, sit a spell, and learn about the history of the mint julep and get a recipe for the iconic drink.

What is a mint julep?

A refreshing and easy alcoholic drink to make, the mint julep traditionally only has about four ingredients. It’s made from muddled mint leaves, good quality bourbon, sugar, and ice, just like it was in this quote from Fuel Magazine in 1908. According to Fuel, Samuel Judson Roberts, a Kentucky resident, objected to the Virginia style of mint juleps. The magazine printed his instructions for a proper Kentucky version of the drink.

“Take a silver cup—always a silver cup. Fill it with ice pulverized to the fineness of snow. Bruise one tender little leaf of mint and stick it in the ice,” the magazine states. “Then dissolve a spoonful of sugar in about three-quarters of a Kentucky drink of good whiskey and let the fluid filter through the ice to the bottom of the cup. Shake the cup slowly until a coating of thick white frost forms on the outside. Trim with mint and hand to an appreciative gentleman.”

When was the mint julep invented?

Like most foods and drinks in this country, the mint julep has origins in both immigrants’ influence and American regional cooks.

In this case, it’s widely believed that the mint julep started with the concept of rose-infused water from the Middle East, PBS explains. The rosewater was mixed with sugar and water, and medical practitioners used it to make the medicine for an upset stomach taste more pleasant. It’s also believed that the word “julep” started with the Arabic word “julab,” the word for rosewater.

Mint eventually replaced the rose infusion. And it made its way to the United States in the late 1700s/early 1800s, according to PBS. As legend has it, Southerners started each day with a mint julep to protect themselves from mosquitoes and malaria. The drink was so delicious, though, that it became a relaxing beverage, in addition to a medicinal one.

And once Kentucky senator Henry Clay reportedly made the mint julep popular in Washington, D.C., it became a national phenomenon.

Has the mint julep recipe changed over time?

Not much has changed since Roberts described the mint julep in delicious detail. Tesla Viergutz, bar manager of Bourbon Raw in Louisville, Kentucky, described the bar’s mint julep method, updated with a copper cup.

“We have our traditional mint julep, making a mint simple syrup in-house and using Woodford Bourbon, and we always serve it on crushed ice,” Viergutz says. “We put a ball of crushed ice into a copper cup. We pour bourbon over the ice and then pour the syrup over that as well. Once it melts down to the bottom, the water evens out the cocktail so that it’s not too strong. That’s it!”

The early mint juleps featured a range of liquors from brandy to gin. Legend says that poor Southerners who couldn’t afford this higher-end liquor began to use bourbon instead, which was readily available. Regardless of the type of alcohol, the Mint Julep was the epitome of attention to detail. Cookbooks described the consistency of ice, the thickness of the mint stalks, and the cleanliness of the water to make the optimal drink.

RELATED: The science-backed way to curb your sweet tooth in 14 days.

Why is the mint julep the official drink of the Kentucky Derby?

The number of mint juleps served over the two days of festivities at the Kentucky Derby is staggering. According to the Kentucky Derby’s website, almost 120,000 of the drinks are served each year. That requires “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 website notes.

With around 150,000 visitors to the event every year, almost everyone is getting a taste of the famous beverage. But why is it such a big deal in Kentucky? As it happens, the state is home to the nation’s first commercial distillery. There’s even a section of Louisville that’s known as Whiskey Row.

Bartenders at Churchill Downs began making and selling the mint julep in 1875. But the bartenders’ glasses kept disappearing—the customers were stealing the special cups that held the mint juleps. In 1938, to combat the theft, the racetrack decided to charge for the cup and the drink, a whopping 75 cents. This made the cups a collectible object of desire, and the popularity at the racetrack took off. For a while, prohibition stopped the distribution, but when it ended, the mint julep became even more popular as the nation ended its dry spell.

Now, you can even buy a special mint julep that benefits a charity, the horse-focused Old Friends Thoroughbred Retirement Center, at the race. It comes with a gold-plated cup and straw—and it’ll set you back a cool $1,000.

What’s the official Kentucky Derby whiskey label?

Viergutz shares her bourbon preference with legendary Churchill Downs, site of the Kentucky Derby. Woodford Reserve is the Kentucky Derby’s official bourbon. But the Old Forester Bourbon also calls itself the “official drink of the Kentucky Derby.” Essentially, you can’t go wrong with either of these whiskeys.

“Woodford Reserve is an 80-proof traditional style bourbon, so it matches well with most syrups or citrus,” Viergutz says. “It’s just a really smooth bourbon.”

The whiskey (more on that later) was first made at the Woodford Reserve Distillery, a National Historic Landmark in Versailles, Kentucky, in 1812. The company says there are more than 200 flavor notes in Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey. One of those flavors is mint, which is sure to make it a good choice for a Mint Julep.

So which is it, whiskey or bourbon?

Simply put, all bourbons are whiskey. Bourbon must be made in the United States—there are actual laws about whiskey production and what constitutes bourbon, Jim Beam explains. (There are plenty of other types of whiskey, though, that are made outside the country.)

To meet the government’s bourbon specifications, a bourbon mixture has to be at least 51% corn. Many companies use way more, but this is the government’s take on what makes it bourbon. The liquor also needs to be aged for at least two years in “new, charred oak barrels,” according to Jim Beam. This process mellows the alcohol and allows it to take on the characteristics of the barrel.

And to qualify as bourbon, the whiskey cannot enter the barrel at more than 125 proof and can’t be bottled less than 80 proof. It’s distilled at no more than 160 proof to start.

Finally, there are no additives that would take away from the natural bourbon. Whiskey can sometimes have syrups or colorings, but a straight bourbon comes out of the process the way it went in: naturally.

Was the straw invented because of the mint julep?

Aside from the Kentucky Derby, the cocktail has another claim to fame: its connection to the patent for straws.

There’s evidence that Ancient Sumerians, a beer-brewing society, made long tubes from precious metals to reach the bottom of their drinks, a more pure liquid below the particles and pieces of their fermentation process. However, mint julep drinker Marvin Stone did patent the first drinking straw in 1888.

Marvin was a cigarette holder maker by trade. And when he was sitting around sipping his mint julep, using a piece of ryegrass to slurp past the mint leaves, he decided he could make something better.

Using a pencil as a form, he wrapped paper and glued it into the shape of a tube. His business, Stone Industrial, was mass-producing straws by 1890.

With the increase in the plastics industry and popularity among soda shops, the plastic straw certainly took off. But Stone’s original straw was an environmentally-friendly paper version. Today, paper straws cost more than their plastic counterparts, but they’re more eco-friendly.

How can you make a mint julep at home?

Viergutz has an easy recipe that replicates Bourbon Raw’s recipe for a Mint Julep. She starts by suggesting a quick way to make a mint simple syrup.

“Melt equal parts sugar and water and boil the mint leaves in that to get the syrup,” Viergutz suggests. The bar she works at strains the mint leaves out, but she says it’s a matter of personal preference.

“The longer you let it sit, the more it will taste like mint,” she explains. Bourbon Raw also uses copper mugs, because they keep the ice cold longer and keeps it from melting too fast. Here’s the rest of the recipe:

Bourbon Raw’s Louisville Mint Julep

Ingredients

8-ounce cup, full of crushed ice
2 ounces of Woodford Reserve Kentucky Bourbon
1 ounce of mint simple syrup
Mint sprigs to garnish

Directions

  1. Use an ice cream scoop to make a ball of the crushed ice.
  2. Pour the bourbon directly over the ice and follow with the mint syrup.
  3. Stir until the cup shows frost on the outside.
  4. Add a straw and a sprig of mint to garnish.

Now that you know a little more about this Southern cocktail, you’ll probably want to enjoy it all summer long. Nothing beats crushed ice and mint on a hot day, and the bourbon is just an added bonus.

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