“The mint julep has probably been with us since the very first Kentucky Derby,” says Chris Goodlett, senior curator of collections at the Kentucky Derby Museum
, which is adjacent to the Churchill Downs racetrack in Louisville, Kentucky.
Juleps — mint and sugar stirred with crushed ice and spirits like bourbon and rum — were a staple of genteel society below the Mason-Dixon line since the early 1800s, guzzled by Virginian farmers in the morning as a restorative.
The link between juleps and the racetrack dates back to at least the 1820s, when references appear to sterling silver julep cups being awarded as trophies to first-place jockeys. “It ties together two of Kentucky’s most well-known industries: horse racing and bourbon,” says Goodlett.
Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr. built the Churchill Downs facility and inaugurated the debut Kentucky Derby in 1875. The grandson of William Clark of the 1804 expedition fame, Clark Jr. was a colorful figure in his own right, known for ending arguments by brandishing a gun.
The first bit of famous Derby julep lore occurred in 1877 when the event welcomed a celebrity visitor: the famous Polish actress Helena Modjeska. As legend has it, Clark toasted to Helena as she was passed a very large mint julep, meant for sharing with a group. Helena liked it so much she kept it for herself and ordered another.
By the 1920s, the drink was an ingrained enough ritual at the Derby that at the onset of Prohibition, Southern newspapers were filled with accounts of journalists bemoaning the fact that they wouldn’t be able to sip their beloved juleps at the races any longer.
But it wasn’t till 1939 that the mint julep actually became the event’s official drink. Racetrack managers realized that visitors were stealing the water glasses that juleps were served in, and decided to start selling the glasses as souvenirs.
Today, the julep is embedded in Derby ceremony itself: at the Winner’s Party, the governor of Kentucky toasts to the victor with a sterling silver julep cup.
Of course, it’s not mere historical coincidence that juleps became such a popular accessory at the race. Properly made, the mint julep is one of the most delicious and refreshing drinks in the American cocktail pantheon, and one best imbibed at an unhurried pace.
The ice slowly melts inside the frosted julep tin, fusing with golden-brown bourbon and the oils released from fresh mint. The boozy nectar formed as a result has been the next best thing to air-conditioning since the 19th century.
The Derby is popularly known as the “Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports,” but the mint julep is a drink built for the long haul.
Kentucky Derby Mint Julep
The Kentucky Derby pours Old Forester bourbon in their juleps, but high-quality, high-proof bourbons like Old Grandad 114 or Blanton’s can give the drink a stronger backbone and richer flavor.
2 oz bourbon
1 tbsp mint syrup
Make a simple syrup by boiling two cups sugar and two cups of water till dissolved. Once cooled, add six or eight sprigs of fresh mint and refrigerate overnight. To make one julep, add one tablespoon mint syrup and two ounces bourbon to a julep tin, and then add crushed ice while stirring till frost forms. Mound ice on top, garnish generously with mint, and serve with a straw.