A Kentucky Derby Purist’s Guide To Crafting The Perfect Mint Julep


A Kentucky Derby Purist’s Guide To Crafting The Perfect Mint Julep

The 2023 Kentucky Derby will run Saturday, May 6 at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky. While only a lucky few will be on hand for the “most exciting two minutes in sports,” the rest of the horse-racing world will be taking in the race at home, amid festivities that include the race’s iconic drink: the mint julep

Of course, no dignified host would ever offer their guest a mediocre mint julep in the hours leading up to the “Run for The Roses.” 

But for complete inspiration to serve up the best, most authentic mint julep your nattily-dressed guests have ever had, a Derby Day host should begin their preparations with the purveyance of the drink’s iconic history.

And that’s where Presidents Andrew Jackson and Teddy Roosevelt, Colonel Meriweather Lewis Clark, Jr., William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Scarlett O’Hara, Daisy Buchanan, and Ray Charles all come in.

A drink for all occasions

Jackson biographer James Parton wrote that Andrew Jackson enjoyed mint juleps while watching cockfights all the way back in 1795. (And if that seems like revisionist history, Parton’s books on the nation’s seventh president were published in 1859-60).

Jump ahead a century after Jackson’s dalliance with the drink, and there was Teddy Roosevelt in the White House, frequently offering his cabinet members mint juleps after a few sets of tennis. (Of course, Roosevelt’s version included rye whiskey and brandy instead of bourbon – an unforgivable act, as you’ll come to realize.)

As for Colonel Meriweather Lewis, he was the founder of Churchill Downs racetrack, and as the story goes he served his guests mint juleps at the inaugural Kentucky Derby in 1875.

Inspire the senses and arouse high passions

In the mid-20th century, American author William Faulkner adopted the mint julep as his drink of choice as he wrote some of the most definitive works in the history of Southern literature.

A contemporary of Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway may have had the classic Scotch and soda (among others) as his personal “poison” of choice, but legend has it that he once slammed his glass against the wall of a bar in France and shouted, “Doesn’t anyone in this godforsaken country know how to make a mint julep?” 

The drink had a strong effect on Scarlett O’Hara, the fictional heroine of “Gone With The  Wind,” as well. O’hara, of course, has a famous drink named after her (Southern Comfort, cranberry juice, and lime juice), but in the novel, Scarlett favored the potent fragrance of mint juleps, especially on the lips of the men in her life.

Margaret Mitchell included this provocative moment between Scarlett and one of her beaus:

“His breath in her face,” wrote Mitchell, “was strong with Bourbon whiskey mingled with the faint fragrance of mint. Accompanying him also were the smells of chewing tobacco, well-oiled leather and horses—a combination of odors that she always associated with her father and instinctively liked in other men.”

In “The Great Gatsby,” author F. Scott Fitzgerald has Daisy Buchanan instruct her husband, Tom, in a scene set in a sweltering hotel room, to “call up and order some ice for the mint julep.”

Finally, Ray Charles hit No. 1 on the R&B charts in 1952 with his hit “One Mint Julep.” In the song, a man overindulges his passions, lamenting

“I don’t remember just how I started

I only know that we should have parted

I stole a kiss, and then another

I didn’t mean to take it further

One mint julep was the cause of it all.”

Building the Kentucky Derby mint julep

One of the main reasons for a disappointing Derby Day mint julep is the fact that, with only four ingredients – ice, sugar water (or simply syrup), spearmint leaves, and of course 90-proof Kentucky bourbon – the recipe can lull an amateur mixologist into a false sense of security.

First, ice is a tricky partner; it should not be overlooked. The purist’s mint julep must include not just any ice – but “shaved ice,” or “crushed ice” – to properly dilute and chill the drink quickly. To achieve the best crushed consistency for your ice cubes, wrap the cubes in a clean kitchen towel and smash them with a sturdy pan or a rolling pin. Dampen the towel to avoid sticking.

Next, most people familiar with the drink will associate it with its iconic silver cup. If you’re going to the trouble of hosting a Kentucky Derby party, make sure you have plenty on hand.

Also, only buy fresh mint leaves when you visit the supermarket (or better still, plan a few months ahead–for next year’s Derby, at least–and plant them in your backyard). Pass on the stems, please.

As for alcohol, bourbon is king. Woodford Reserve and Maker’s Mark are very good options. Old Forester, which makes a ready-to-drink mint julep, has been the Derby’s official brand for more than two decades. Despite the all-in-one approach, purists will commend your homage to Churchill Downs should you serve it at your Derby party.

For mixologists looking to build their juleps from scratch, the Kentucky Derby and Woodford Reserve provide their Classic mint julep recipe for at-home Derby events. 

  • 2 oz. Woodford Reserve®
  • 1/2 oz. Simple Syrup
  • 3 Fresh Mint Leaves
  • Crushed Ice

Preparation involves a delicate hand

With guests clamoring for a crisp, cool cocktail on a hot day, you must not lose your cool. Making a quality mint julep takes time and attention to detail.

“Express the essential oils in the mint [muddle] and rub them inside the glass,” reads the official Kentucky Derby preparations. “To the same glass, add simple syrup, bourbon and crushed ice. Stir. Garnish with more ice and fresh mint.”

Any great bartender will stress the word “gently” as part of muddling, as failing to appreciate that warning is one of the most common blunders made by amateur mint julep makers. A light muddle brings out the oils and scents of the mint – but if you overdo it, the drink will taste bitter, one-dimensional and not stand out to any of the five senses.

The stirring also should be gentle, by the way.

A subtle distinction, experts say: Hold the silver cup by its base as you make the drink, because you don’t want your body temperature to warm the cup.

Bonus points if you have stainless steel julep straws on hand. This drink is meant to be an indulgent sensory experience, and the proper straw adds to that.

As for the mint, it is so delicate that it has to be cared for properly, mixologists warn. Keep it in cold water – or even in the cooler, if the temperature is high and you are out back entertaining on the patio.

When proper attention has been paid, when respect to the drink’s rich history has been shown and when guests recall how your mint juleps elevated the Kentucky Derby, perhaps, like the winning horse, you’ll have caught lightning in a bottle, or a silver cup.

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