The Kentucky Derby is the oldest continuously running sports event in the nation. The first Kentucky Derby was held on May 17th, 1875 and has happened annually at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday of May ever since. It’s a grand social affair wrapped in the trappings of a sporting event (or the other way around, depending on where your priorities lie). The traditions of a derby event are heavily borrowed from the British; the awards, the hats, the pageantry. But the Kentucky Derby has a few traditions that stand out as distinctly American additions to the event. An integral part of the derby experience, Mint Juleps were served at the very first derby, but only became the official signature cocktail of the event in 1938.
No Kentucky Derby is complete without a Mint Julep in hand. Each year, almost 120,000 Mint Juleps are served over the two day period of Kentucky Oaks and Kentucky Derby weekend at Churchill Downs Racetrack. That comes to more than 1,000 pounds of freshly harvested mint, 60,000 pounds of ice, and 10,000 bottles of bourbon. The Julep has been around a lot longer than the derby, but nailing down the exact origins of a cocktail can be a tricky business.
By some accounts, the Mint Julep first appeared in print in 1803 described as a "dram of spirituous liquor that has mint in it, taken by Virginians in the morning." Other historians say Mint Julep was born in the early 1700s somewhere on the east coast of the US. These first Mint Juleps weren't perhaps mixed with Bourbon, but rather rye whiskey, rum or other available spirits.
Other beverage historians will point several centuries back to an Arabic drink called julab, made with water and rose petals. When the julab was introduced to the Mediterranean region, the rose petals were replaced with mint - a plant indigenous to the area with some of the same soothing qualities as the original. This mint version of the drink grew in popularity as an elixir said to improve quality of life and revive the senses.
The drink’s popularity spread to the agricultural regions of east and southeast North America where it was used as a morning drink. Farmers would wake at dawn, sip a little julep, and be ready to face the long day ahead of them.
Other sources cite the concoction as a medicine, first mentioned in 1784 in a medical publication. There is a fairly accepted theory that the concoction originally used more expensive brandy or imported whisky but that the recession in the South following the Civil War prompted the switch to less expensive local bourbon.
The true origin of the Mint Julep is still up for debate. Many regard Kentucky as the birthplace of the modern iteration, although there are historic references to West Virginia, Georgia, and Virginia.
While historians might not agree on a single origin for the cocktail, bartenders have been making variations on the basic recipe for a while now.
Here are the basic instructions to make your own Mint Julep:
- 2 oz. Bourbon
- 12 oz. Metal Cup (Silver or Pewter is Traditional)
- ¼ oz. Simple Syrup
- Finely Crushed or Shaved Ice
- Place 15 – 20 mint leaves in a dry, pre-chilled metal cup
- Lightly muddle the leaves
- Add the Bourbon and Simple Syrup; Mix
- Fill the Cup with Crushed Ice Rounding the Top to Resemble a Snow Cone
- Select Several Fresh Mint Sprigs & Garnish
For more information on Kentucky Bourbon as well as a tongue-in-cheek recipe for a Julep, check out the section on Kentucky in The Field Guide to Drinking in America by Niki Ganong. And if you’re headed to Kentucky to see the greatest two minutes in sports, make sure to read up on drinking like a local in our blog interview with Field Guide contributor Jacquelyn Zykan.