The Mint Julep: A Classic Southern Cocktail

Posted by The Bottle Haus
Mon, Nov 15, 21

Whenever the Kentucky Derby comes around in May, only one blended bourbon cocktail reigns supreme at Churchill Downs: the Mint Julep. To many, the Kentucky Derby has always been synonymous with the cocktail, which has served it since 1903. In fact, about 120,000 Mint Juleps are sold at Churchhill Downs every year.

Although it has been famous since its inception, this refreshing cocktail has been gaining popularity in recent years, and thankfully for most of us, like many classic drinks, it benefits from having a small ingredient list and ease of preparation. Essentially, it's a simple cocktail made with bourbon, sugar, mint, and crushed ice. This delightful cocktail will be a smash at any bourbon-loving occasion, whether it's a Kentucky Derby party or a warm-weather celebration.

You don’t need to attend the famous “race for the roses” at Churchill Downs to enjoy a glass of Mint Julep. We’ll share some of the best bourbon and an easy-to-follow recipe below, so you can make your own Mint Julep.

What Does a Mint Julep Taste Like?

A sip of this cool drink will transport you to the middle of summer. Minty and ice-cold with just the right amount of sweetness and alcohol to make it a great summer drink.

It has a unique flavor profile thanks to the combination of bourbon, fresh mint, and sugar. The bourbon, a type of whiskey, adds a woody or oaky flavor to the drink, while the fresh mint delivers a pleasant and refreshing sensation. Finally, the beverage is finished off with sugar, which adds just enough sweetness to balance the bourbon's kick and the minty burst.

A Brief History of the Mint Julep

Arab Origins

The mint julep is thought to have Arab origins. According to popular belief, the drink's name derives from the Persian and Arabic words Gulab and julab, both of which mean "rosewater."

The Arabic drink julab was created with water and rose petals centuries ago. People were attracted to the beverage's delicate and refreshing smell, believing it would instantly improve their quality of life." Locally grown mint has taken the place of popular rose petals and the "mint julep" rose throughout the Mediterranean.

The drink then gained popularity throughout Europe and finally made its way to the United States, where it found a home in the agricultural regions of the east and south.

Known as medication

The name julep was also used to describe any kind of syrupy mixed drink that was combined with medication. As early as 1784, mint juleps were administered to patients with swallowing problems and sore stomachs as a way to ease their discomfort.

Arrival in America

According to legend, the mint julep arrived in America from Europe via the Mississippi River, where a man was searching for water to blend with his whiskey. By chance, he discovered some mint in the wild and added a few leaves into his drink and henceforth, made a new discovery.

Rise in Popularity in the 1800s

Since the 1800s, the Mint Julep has been a favorite among drinkers because of its iconic presentation and refreshing taste. History mostly points to the late 1700s or early 1800s as the time period when Virginia's upper class began to experiment with mixing bourbon with mint.

Virginians used to have this minty cocktail for breakfast, served in silver goblets but during this time, it was still made with brandy or rum. Because bourbon was widely available and more affordable, underprivileged Southerners introduced it to the julep cocktail.

"The julep was originally a morning drink for farmers," explains Chris Morris of Woodford Reserve Bourbon. "In today's culture, the julep is the spirited counterpart of coffee. With just one sip, Pow! The farmers were prepared to face the arduous day ahead."

It was in 1803 that the Mint Julep was first mentioned in print, where it was characterized as a "dram of spirituous liquor with mint in it, taken by Virginians in the morning."

Kentucky Derby

No Mint Julep article would be complete without noting its connection to the Kentucky Derby. The cocktail became the official drink at Churchill Downs in 1938. Annually, an estimated 120,000 mint juleps are drank at the Derby. With 254,000 ounces of bourbon, 4,000 pounds of mint, and 60,000 pounds of ice, this cocktail can be made in one day.

Originally, mint juleps were made with rye whiskey, rum, or any other available spirit. Bourbon, a particularly Kentucky blend of whiskey, was naturally the liquor of choice for the Mint Julep, which quickly gained popularity. According to the Derby Museum, it has been the staple beverage of Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby for for a century, beginning in 1938 when it was served in souvenir glasses for 75 cents.

What’s in a Mint Julep?

So, what exactly is in a mint julep? Actually, there are just four key ingredients in a classic mint julep recipe! Simple right? It’s a classic bourbon cocktail with fresh mint, simple syrup, crushed ice and a good bourbon.


The Sweetener

To sweeten things up with ease and precision, we recommend using simple syrup. You could buy simple syrup at the supermarket or prepare your own. You can simply create it yourself by combining equal parts sugar and boiling water.

If you want to make minty simple syrup, mix sugar and water in a small saucepan over medium-high heat and bring to a boil, then remove from the heat and add mint. Muddle and steep overnight, then filter the syrup through a mesh screen.

Since this is a drink that needs to be served ice-cold, you don't want to add your simple syrup while it's still warm from the saucepan. Make the syrup ahead of time so that you have some on hand when you need it.

Keeping this syrup in the refrigerator should last you about a month.

The Mint

No mint julep would be complete without this key ingredient. Look for bright green leaves and give them a good rinsing. We recommend that you gently muddle the mint as it is a delicate herb. Over-muddling might result in a harsh bitter flavor so you’ll want to muddle it just enough to release the oil from the mint. Aim to put just the right amount of pressure and not too much power.

The Ice

Because this cocktail tastes best when it’s ice cold and heavily diluted, crushed ice is key in any mint julep recipe. You can use a blender, ice crusher, or muddler to crush ice.

Smaller ice produces more ice surface area, the Mint Julep chills and dilutes more quickly and efficiently.This means that it will frost the outside of the glass faster. Dilution is essential in this cocktail, and choosing the right ice will ensure that you don't end up with too much warmth from the alcohol. 

The vessel

A julep is traditionally served in a metal cup because it can channel heat away from the drink, which is perfect for when you're watching the Kentucky Derby in the sun or having it in the summer heat. Though this is the preferred method, if you don't have a julep cup, a highball glass or a tall old fashioned glass will suffice. Serve your juleps using a napkin to prevent heat from transferring from your fingertips to the glass or cup.

The Bourbon

To create the perfect Mint Julep doesn’t mean you have to use the most expensive or rare bourbons. The great thing about this drink is its simplicity which allows the spirit to take center stage, so it can be any bourbon that you enjoy. With only four ingredients, the flavor of bourbon characterizes this traditional cocktail, so go for a bourbon you would drink straight.

We do recommend using a bourbon with a little kick such as an 80-90 proof or more. On hotter days, this can really help to give the drink stand out against the shaved ice and will give plenty of dilution.

What is the Best Bourbon for Mint Julep?

As bourbon is the only liquid used in the recipe, the quality of the Mint Julep is determined by the quality of your whiskey of choice. Go for a high-quality bottle that you like! A great bourbon is essential for the perfect cocktail.

The list below is just meant to help you explore other bourbons you might not have tried yet. According to most enthusiasts and bartenders, these are some of the best bourbons for this cocktail.

Since we want a drink with a little kick, most of the bourbons listed below are at 80 to 100 proof for the best results.

Four Roses Single Barrel 

Four Roses Distillery, on the banks of the Salt River in Lawrenceburg, is a testimony to American creativity and tenacity. The distillery, built in 1910 to imitate California wineries, was one of six permitted to operate during Prohibition.

A spicy and rich Bourbon, Four Roses Single Barrel is a straight whiskey that's ​100 proof. The flavors include hints of cherries, pear, and chocolate, as well as oak and toffee. This is a bourbon that has enough rye to throw in that spice, and enough strength to fight the sweetness in a Mint Julep to keep everything balanced.

The Four Roses Single Barrel blends nicely with the mint and provides depth and complexity to the cocktail. It's smooth but not boring. This specific 100 proof bourbon tastes like it was designed specifically for Mint Juleps as it can strike the perfect balance of having its character yet works wonderfully together.

Woodford Reserve Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey

Woodford Reserve Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey is in the Kentucky Derby's signature recipe, and for good reason. Woodford Reserve is a really smooth bourbon with a wonderful flavor profile and delectable caramel overtones. The perfectly balanced bourbon made of more than 200 detectable flavor notes, from bold grain and wood, to sweet aromatics, spice, and fruit & floral notes is a great addition to most cocktails.

Most importantly, this 90.4 bourbon works well with the mint and sugar in the julep whereas other bourbons may be too peppery or too mild for the refreshing spring cocktail. This perfectly conforms to the drink and goes down smooth.

Larceny Small Batch Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey

Larceny Small Batch Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey is a wheat Bourbon produced using a mash of corn, malted barley, rye, and 20% wheat. This high percentage makes it sweet and complex, yet it's a fantastic choice for individuals searching for something inexpensive but flavorful. Its sweetness should go well with the mint and sugar.

Larceny Bourbon, at 92 proof, has a sweeter, softer flavor profile than bourbons made with rye as a secondary grain. It engulfs you in smells of bananas, honey, and almonds before finishing with oak spice.

Old Forester Signature 100 Proof Bourbon

The origins of Old Forester may be traced back to 1870 when George Garvin Brown created the brand's first bottled bourbon (older even than the Kentucky Derby). This is a bourbon with a wonderful bite and bitterness that will yet play well with the sweetness. Old Forester is a classic choice and one of the best bourbons for Mint Julep. Old Forester is high proof and a terrific bourbon whiskey that goes with mint and sugar.

This 100 Proof formula, made from a mash bill of 72% corn, 18% rye, and 10% malted barley has chocolate and coffee on the nose, followed closely by toasted oak and sweet apple on the palate. The rich palate adds to that some fruity notes, nuts, maple syrup, and caramel. Old Forester finishes spicy and complex with pepper, cloves, nutmeg, and oak. 

Wild Turkey 101

Crafted using a high-rye mash bill, Wild Turkey 101 has a distinct and spicy flavor profile. Because t’s a low-proof bourbon, more flavor from the mash is extracted, giving this brew a distinct flavor.

Wild Turkey's flagship bourbon, has the body and flavor to stand alone or in a range of cocktails such as the Mint Julep.  The serious flavor of Wild Turkey bourbon combined with the fresh balance of mint and sugar syrup creates a powerful Mint Julep that’s tasty until the last drop.

Again we emphasize that the best bourbon to use in a Mint Julep is one you enjoy drinking. Experiment with different bourbons in the same way that you would with different flavors in a snow cone. There is no single flavor that will appeal to everyone's palate.

How to Make a Mint Julep Cocktail

Though there are many variations now, nothing beats a classic recipe.

Ingredients:

  • 4-10 fresh mint leaves
  • 0.5 oz simple syrup
  • 2.5 oz Bourbon whiskey of your choice (preferable 80-90 proof)
  • Crushed ice
  1. Gather the ingredients.
  2. In a julep cup or cocktail glass, combine the mint leaves and simple syrup.
  3. Muddle long enough to dissolve the sugar and unleash the mint's oil and scent. Using a moderate pressing (not crushing) action, muddle them across the whole interior of the cup.
  4. Fill your glass halfway with crushed ice, then pour in the Bourbon and whisk with a bar spoon until thoroughly cold.
  5. More crushed ice should be added to the top of your drink, forming a dome that reaches approximately an inch or two over the glass's rim.
  6. If you're feeling generous, a mint sprig or a large wad of mint gathered by the stems might be used as a garnish.
  7. Spank the hank of mint against the top edges of the glass to release some of those aromatic oils before nestling the stem ends into the cocktail near the glass's edge.

A few tips for the perfect Mint Julep:

  • Muddle your mint leaves gently. The goal is to release the essential oils, not to shred the leaves.
  • Another use for your muddler is to make crushed ice without using a machine: Put ice cubes in a Lewis bag (a cloth bag manufactured expressly for this purpose) or wrap them in a towel and whack them until they're finely smashed ice.
  • After you've made the cocktail, give it a little stir until the glass is ice. This should take no more than 30 seconds, but the longer the better.
  • Pour yourself a glass of your favorite bourbon. Because bourbon is the only liquid in the Julep, it's better to go with a brand you like. The whiskey is always the main flavor, even if it has been sweetened and flavored.
  • Before adding the mint sprig as a garnish, gently slapping it with your hands unleashes the mint's aromatic aromas.
  • These drinks go well with Southern food. For your derby party, you might want to serve them with pickled shrimp, deviled eggs, or pimiento cheese dip.

The Mint Julep isn't only for the Kentucky Derby; it's a drink that can be enjoyed all year. Remember, the finest Bourbon to use is the one you enjoy drinking the most!

We’ll leave you with this beautiful note on enjoying a Mint Julep by Joshua Soule Smith, a Kentucky colonel who wrote about juleps in the 1890s:

“Then when it is made, sip it slowly. August suns are shining, the breath of the south wind is upon you. It is fragrant cold and sweet - it is seductive. No maidens kiss is tenderer or more refreshing, no maidens touch could be more passionate. Sip it and dream-it is a dream itself. No other land can give you so much sweet solace for your cares; no other li  quor soothes you in melancholy days. Sip it and say there is no solace for the soul, no tonic for the body like old Bourbon whiskey.”