The Mint Julep, a cocktail of mint leaf, bourbon, sugar, and crushed ice, has been the official drink of the Kentucky Derby for nearly a century.
So how is it that the Mint Julep came to be synonymous with the most prestigious horse race in the United States?
The julep cup itself is a longstanding southern tradition. For wealthy southerners, silver or pewter cups were popular gifts for weddings, christenings, and graduations. Monogrammed and dated to mark the occasion, they were handed down as family heirlooms. Such cups were also perfect for cocktails – when held by the top edge or bottom, the crushed ice inside will create a frosty exterior.
As for the beverage, the Mint Julep appeared in 1784 as a remedy for pain and upset stomach. In the early 1800s, Virginians would sip brandy or rum juleps over breakfast.
The drink made its way west, from the high society of Virginia to the working class of Kentucky, and brandy was replaced by bourbon, a liquor that was less inexpensive and more readily available. Juleps became akin to coffee at dawn for farmers facing long days in the fields.
In 1938, the Mint Julep became Churchill Downs‘ signature drink. It was sold for 75 cents in a collectible souvenir glass. Today, more than 120,000 juleps are served at the Kentucky Derby each year.
2.5 ounces of bourbon whisky
1 tsp. sugar
2 tsp. water
Fresh mint sprigs (stems removed)
Place 3-5 mint leaves at the bottom of the cup and muddle gently. Add sugar and water and crush slightly. Fill cup with crushed ice. Add bourbon and garnish with a mint sprig.
(For a non-alcoholic version, substitute ginger ale for whisky.)