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  • Writer's pictureThe Grand Crew

How the Mint Julep Became Derby's Cocktail

The mint julep is a refreshing cocktail made with bourbon, mint, sugar, and crushed ice. It is also the official drink of the Kentucky Derby, the most famous horse race

in America. But how did this drink become associated with the Derby? Here is a brief history of the mint julep and its connection to the Kentucky Derby.

Connection to the Kentucky Derby

The Kentucky Derby is an annual horse race that takes place on the first Saturday of May at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky. It is the oldest continuously running sporting event in America and one of the most prestigious races in the world. The first Derby was held in 1875 and attracted 10,000 spectators. The mint julep was already a popular drink in Kentucky at that time, but it was not yet linked to the Derby.

The connection between the mint julep and the Derby was established in 1938, when Churchill Downs started selling the drink as its official beverage. The drink was served in souvenir glasses that featured the names of past Derby winners. The mint julep became a symbol of Southern hospitality and tradition, as well as a way to cope with the heat and crowds at the racetrack. Today, nearly 120,000 mint juleps are sold at Churchill Downs during the two-day period of the Derby weekend.

Origins of the Mint Julep

The julep was originally a sweet drink made with water and rose petals, often used as a medicine for sore throats or stomach aches. In the 18th century, mint replaced rose petals in some regions, giving rise to the “mint julep”.

Introduction of Bourbon

Some historians believe that bourbon was introduced to the mint julep by poor Southerners who could not afford fine liquor. Others claim that bourbon was always the preferred spirit for juleps in Kentucky, where it was abundant and cheap. Either way, bourbon soon became the dominant ingredient in mint juleps, adding a distinctive flavor and kick to the drink.

The Recipe

If you want to enjoy a mint julep at home or at your own Derby party, here is a simple recipe that you can follow:

  • Ingredients: 3oz. of bourbon whiskey (preferably Old Forester), 0.75 oz. of simple syrup (or sugar), 8-10 fresh mint leaves, crushed ice

  • Tools: A julep cup (or a rocks glass), a muddler (or a spoon), a straw

    • Fill the julep cup with crushed ice and set aside.

    • In a mixing glass, combine the bourbon, simple syrup, and mint leaves.

    • Gently muddle (or bruise) the mint leaves with the muddler to release their oils and flavor.

    • Strain the mixture into the julep cup over the ice.

    • Garnish with three sprigs of mint and insert a straw near them.

    • Enjoy your mint julep and cheer for your favorite horse!

Making your own simple syrup is simple! In a small saucepan over medium-high heat, bring 1/2 cup sugar and 1 cup water just to a boil. Add 1/2 cup fresh mint leaves.

Reduce the heat to maintain a simmer and cook, without stirring if you can resist it, until the syrup is slightly thickened, about 10 minutes.

Transfer the syrup to a small metal bowl and let sit until cooled off a bit, about 10 minutes. You can use it immediately, let it cool to room temperature, or store in the refrigerator for up to six months.

To make a non-alcoholic version, simply substitute iced team for the bourbon!

The mint julep is a cool and refreshing drink that has a long and rich history. It is also a great way to celebrate the Kentucky Derby and its Southern heritage. Whether you are watching the race from Churchill Downs or from your couch, you can sip on a mint julep and feel like you are part of the tradition.



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