Derby Tradition: In Search of the Perfect Mint Julep

With the Kentucky Derby just a day away, TIME takes a look at the history and remarkable innovation of the South's most notorious cocktail

  • Share
  • Read Later
Maison Premiere

A mint julep at Maison Premiere in Brooklyn, N.Y.

This weekend’s Kentucky Derby at the Churchill Downs racetrack in Louisville marks the start of horse racing’s Triple Crown season. But for an ever-growing portion of the non-teetotaling population, it’s greater significance is the annual celebration of the South’s greatest cocktail: the mint julep. Sugar, mint and spirit, all piled high with ice and served in a silver cup, the julep is a drink so accessible and delicious that it’s no wonder it has earned as devoted a following above the Mason-Dixon Line as below.

In fairness, the title of this article is a bit misleading—if you were to ask 100 bartenders how to make a mint julep, you’d likely receive well over 100 different responses. This is to say that there is practically no limit to the ways in which a julep can be constructed. That’s not a recent phenomenon either. The 1968 Dictionary of Drink and Drinking describes the contention over the subject thusly: “The exact composition and making of a julep is a subject upon which any two Americans (one of whom is not necessarily a true Southenah, sah) are prepared to do verbal battle instanter.”

The word “julep” itself is derived from an Arabic word that means “rose water.” Somewhere along the line, however, the rose and the water disappeared, and mint and sugar took their places. While it’s not known when exactly mint juleps—at least those that resemble the commonly accepted modern version of the cocktail—rose to prominence in the United States, most scholarship indicates that they had taken hold in Virginia by the late 18th century. And when I say taken hold, I mean Virginians consumed mint juleps everywhere, all the time, at an absolutely prolific rate. Here’s how a 2005 Baltimore Sun article depicted the prodigious consumption: “They drank them at dawn in their mansions, they drank them before going into battles during the Civil War. They drank them traveling down the Chesapeake Bay.”

On the other hand, traditionalists (especially those from Kentucky) would insist that these were not true mint juleps: the spirit used was rye—or even more blasphemously, rum—rather than bourbon. Even if bourbon is to be accepted as an essential ingredient in a mint julep (and many of today’s forward-thinking bartenders would tell you it’s not), the method of preparing the cocktail is far from agreed upon. Some bartenders and aficionados suggest pre-mixing a mint syrup to ensure consistency, while others insist upon making each drink from scratch to ensure freshness. Hell, they can’t even agree on what sort of glass to use—most prefer the traditional silver (or copper) cup, but a vocal minority claim a tall, thin collins glass is actually preferable, given the difficulty of removing all the silver polish from the bottom of the fabled julep cup. Then there’s the endless debates over the order in which the ingredients should be added, how much muddling of the mint ought to take place and what sort of ice should be used.

So perhaps the best thing to do then, rather than attempting to provide hard and fast rules for julep construction, is to describe how some of the country’s top bars and bartenders go about making theirs.

The classic mint julep that Colin Bryson of Sweetleaf in Long Island City makes requires close to a dozen mint leafs, a half-ounce of simple syrup, a sugar cube, 2.5 ounces of bourbon, a cup’s worth of ice and a julep cup (silver or copper). The precise portions can be (and often are) tweaked, but the principle ingredients remain the same. Bryson gently muddles the mint, sugar cube and simple syrup in a shaker before adding bourbon and transferring the concoction to the julep cup. He then adds crushed ice (small, rounded pellets) and garnishes with mint. For a drink that has created so much fervent debate, the mint julep is remarkably simple to create. More importantly, it’s delicious. A little on the sweeter side of classic cocktails? Definitely. But in a properly constructed julep, the mint balances perfectly with the sugar to form a drink that’s equal parts spiritous, sweet and aromatic.

Of course, it would be remiss to discuss mint juleps without describing how a bar a little closer to their ancestral home makes them. Bar Tonique in New Orleans uses roughly the same method and ingredients for its classic julep, save for one rather distinct difference: instead of the typical crushed ice, bartenders make shaved ice from larger cubes for each order. There’s little discernible difference in taste (which is to say, still delicious), but watching the bartenders manually grind each helping of ice somehow makes the construction of the drink seem more authentic—even if that’s not remotely rooted in fact.

Yet no matter what purists might say, mint julep recipes don’t have to remain slavishly dedicated to the classic ingredients. Maxwell Britten, head bartender at Maison Premiere in Williamsburg, devoted an entire section of the spring cocktail menu to juleps. He’ll happily make the classic version, but you won’t find it on the menu. Instead, there’s an array of original juleps, including the “Run for the Roses Julep” (which actually isn’t on the menu—it’s a special for the bar’s annual Kentucky Derby party) and the “Zombie #6.” The former sticks to the traditional bourbon for a base spirit (Four Roses Yellow Label, to be specific), but adds creme de menthe and rose water. The result is a julep whose dominant flavor bears a striking resemblance to a candy cane. Somehow, though, it manages to achieve a spiritous, minty taste without the overpowering sweetness of the Christmas treat. The mint julep may be the quintessential spring cocktail, but the Run for the Roses would be equally at home during the holiday season.

Zombie #6, however, has its roots planted firmly in the long tradition of tiki cocktails. With four different kinds of rum—Diplomatico, Plantation, Gosling’s and 151—not to mention Apry, pineapple lime syrup and several dashes of absinthe, its ingredients bare little resemblance to those of the classic mint julep. Nevertheless, when served in a julep cup piled high with crushed ice and a mint garnish, it can be all too easy to forget the discrepancies—especially with a drink this potent. Sweetleaf‘s “O’Sherry Julep” also employs rum (Haitian, in this case), but sticks closer to the classic julep recipe, adding grenadine and Oloroso Sherry. They introduce a level of complexity to the drink, while still maintaining the sweetness traditionally associated with a mint julep.

But if either bourbon or rum can serve as suitable base spirits for a mint julep, then why not both? Scott Fitzgerald of The Greenwich Project in New York City did just that with the “Don Juan Julep,” which incorporates Brugal 1888 (a dry, aged Dominican rum), bourbon, demerara syrup, orange and angostura bitters, and mint. The icing on the cake for Fitzgerald’s creation is Fernet Snow, which is basically exactly what it sounds like: Fernet, mixed with water, then frozen and later crushed with a mallet. The ’88 and bourbon play off each other nicely and as the ice melts, the Fernet adds another layer of complexity to what is otherwise a relatively straightforward—though refreshing and enjoyable—julep variation.

If a bartender is going to venture away from bourbon when making a julep, rum is usually the preferred alternative, but it’s not the only option. Tonia Guffey of Dram in Brooklyn went in an entirely different direction, ditching the spirituous, sweet qualities that usually define a julep. Instead, her “Bitter Baby Julep” decreases the potency but ramps up the bitterness in a big way. Pairing Cynar and Campari with Carpano Antica, simple syrup and lemon juice means the drink won’t taste anything like your grandfather’s mint julep, but it is an impressively innovative take on the modern recipe—especially for the more adventurous cocktail aficionado.

Though there’s nothing wrong with innovation and originality when it comes to juleps, sometimes the boundaries can be stretched a little too far. Joe Campanale, beverage director at L’Apicio in New York City, created the “Luca Mano-Freddo,” a cocktail featuring dill-infused vodka, Velvet Falernum, lime juice, cucumber and mint. While exceedingly refreshing and thoroughly appropriate for the season, the drink bares very little resemblance to the classic mint julep—both in form and in taste. Unlike the others tasted for this story, the “Luca Mano-Freddo” opted for ice cubes rather than crushed ice and it wasn’t prepared in a julep cup. So is it a true julep variation? Perhaps not. But a pleasant spring cocktail? Certainly.

The mint julep may be viewed by much of the public as a purely Derby-centric cocktail, but it’s far too delicious to be confined to a niche market. It’s true that the julep process is an involved one—not all bars have ice crushers, fresh mint only lasts so long and julep cups are expensive—but the effort is well worth it for a cocktail that allows for so much innovation. Plus, juleps land right in the cocktail sweet spot: accessible enough for beginners, but spiritous enough for more experienced drinkers. So even if you don’t plan on watching the Derby on Saturday, there are plenty of reasons to opt for a mint juelp—classic or original—this spring. Just be sure to keep an open mind if you ask the bartender how he makes his.