The 148th Kentucky Derby ends Saturday at 6:57 p.m. at Churchill Downs in Louisville. The race brings together more than 150,000 people on site and millions more on television. The first leg of the Triple Crown of horse racing is as much a spectacle as it is a race.
Among the obligatory staples of Derby Day: glorious hats, roses for the winner, losing tickets thrown aside, winners rejoicing and the mint julep.
The mint julep has been a necessary ingredient and official Derby drink since the days of Seabiscuit. Each year around 120,000 mint juleps are served on Friday and Saturday during Derby Week at Churchill Downs.
Just as horse racing continues to evolve, so does the search for the perfect mint julep.
The basics of a mint julep are simple:
- Sugar Syrup
- Mint leaves
- A glass or silver cup
The magic is in the mix. Even these five ingredients are not the subject of established bartending science, but they are the post position in this discussion.
Where and how you go from there is up to your taste and tradition. While the race form can give you an objective breakdown of each Derby entrant, the recipe for your “perfect” mint julep leaves nothing to data and everything to the imagination.
And the best part is that you can try and try again until you succeed, as long as you don’t drive.
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What makes Bourbon, Bourbon?
One way to gauge the impact of the mint julep on Derby day is through corporate sponsorship of the race. The Derby is “presented by Woodford Reserve”. The distillery’s parent company, Brown-Forman, owns several brands, including Jack Daniel’s.
And if you’re of legal drinking age, you can’t have a mint julep without bourbon.
Bourbon is a type of whiskey made under very precise and strict rules. Whiskey is fermented from different types of grain. Bourbon is a younger whiskey and must be made from at least 51% corn, aged in new charred casks made from American white oak and distilled in the USA. The grain mix beyond the corn often determines its flavor.
Bourbon should be at least 80% and in general it is smoother than other whiskeys.
Between Friday’s Kentucky Oaks and the day of the Derby itself, Woodford Reserve will go through more than 10,000 bottles of Old Forester Mint Julep ready-to-serve cocktail mix, 1,000 pounds of mint and 60,000 pounds of ice.
The “Perfect” Mint Julep Recipe
These numbers will not be a problem with you or mine.
So what are the secrets to getting it right with a mint julep?
We went straight to the top of this one and asked Woodford Reserve Master Distiller Chris Morris.
“Always make each julep fresh, one at a time. Ask your guest how much they like their sweet or minty Julep, because “one size doesn’t fit all,” says Morris. “My best advice for making a mint julep at home is to have plenty of crushed ice, fresh mint and a good quality simple syrup. My suggestion is to rub your glass with the mint leaves, add 2 oz Woodford Reserve Bourbon and a splash of simple syrup Then top with crushed ice and stir, then add your sprig of mint as a garnish and top with crushed ice Don’t forget the sipping straw.
And here is perhaps the most important tip: “You drink a Julep from the bottom up, so don’t try to sip it like a standard drink – always use a cocktail straw.”
Even with the required corporate hold, it looks like a winning strategy if there ever was one.
The official mint julep recipe listed on KentuckyDerby.com includes:
- 2oz. Woodford Reserve
- 1/2 oz. simple syrup
- 3 fresh mint leaves
- Crushed ice
Simple syrup is a version with flavors of sugar, water and mint.
Mix them as Morris recommends and adjust to taste. Do you prefer sweeter or more alcoholic?
Since you probably won’t be pouring thousands of glasses on Derby day, you can be a bit more specific by serving the “perfect” mint julep. The biggest difference in the various Derby-themed mint julep recipes is between those that call for sugar and those that use syrup, flavored or not.
Southern Living has a simple mint syrup recipe if you want to create your own. It calls for a mixture of 1 cup sugar in 1 cup boiling water. Stir in the sugar until it dissolves. Remove from fire. Add the mint. Let cool. Pour into a glass jar with the mint. Cover and refrigerate for 24 hours. Remove the mint. And serve.
If you forget to pre-prepare your syrup, you can buy it pre-mixed or opt for sugar and mint in their unmixed form.
Then it becomes a matter of mixology.
As for the use of “water” or “seltzer” in a mint julep, it was considered heresy for a century. “No person of mature intelligence and good taste could argue that a mint julep should contain water,” wrote The New York Times in 1911.
We are sticking to the “no water” rule in 2022.
Perfection remains in the mouth of the drinker.
Mint Julep History
What we consider a mint julep in the United States dates back to the 1862 version of “The Bar Tenders Guide” by Jerry Thomas. This book called for a mint julep using a mixture of brandy and Jamaican rum instead of bourbon, mint, water, and white sugar on top.
“In the 1800s, it was considered a morning drink. People working on horse farms or in the horse racing industry during this time may wake up in pain. You didn’t have aspirin or other painkillers at the time, so you made a mint julep; bourbon to soothe your aches, sugar to give you energy, and mint to help open your eyes,” Morris explained.
An 1888 “Manuel du barman” by Théodore Proulx cites bourbon as the alcoholic component of mint julep.
It’s not just the alcohol that has varied over the years.
Glass, for many, is a silver or metal goblet. The ice can be cubed or crushed. The sugar can be granulated or syrup. The amount of sugar, alcohol and how mint is used depends on taste and preference.
The mint julep lost its importance at the end of the 20th century and became a carnival accessory at the Derby, rather than an object to be savored and enjoyed.
During his time with Woodford Reserve, which began its association with the Derby in 1999, Morris pushed to improve the product served on race day. It had become too sweet and too minty. More like a candy than a drink.
“Outside of Kentucky, you’ll rarely find a bar that serves mint juleps,” Morris said. As he worked to educate customers at Churchill Downs and elsewhere on how to make the drink properly, the quality and quantity of mint julep rose nationwide.
“Soon I was making mint juleps on national television and consumers all over the country started making them at home on their Derby parties,” Morris said.
And drinking a mint julep is no longer just confined to the first Saturday in May.
If your favorite watering hole doesn’t serve them, feel free to share this story as an explanation.
Louisville offers an abundance of choices
Louisville is the birthplace of the Derby and Ground Zero in search of the perfect mint julep.
Gary Bodgon is a photographer and Louisville native who filmed his first Kentucky Derby in 1978, the same year Stevie Cauthen rode Affirmed to victory and ultimately the Triple Crown.
Bogdon grew up in the Louisville area and photographed “the fastest two minutes in sport” more than 30 times, filming the race for Sports Illustrated.
Now a commercial and editorial photographer, Bogdon has an impressive collection of Derby photos and official Mint Julep eyewear. He started collecting glasses with his late mother in the 1980s. It was a fun thing we did together,” he said.
Bogdon appreciates the mint julep and its role in both the pomp and circumstance of the Derby.
“It’s more about traditions than anything else,” he said. “The Derby and Churchill are steeped in pageantry and tradition – the colors of jockey silks, the sights of tall hats, the sounds of running horses and the bugle before each race plus the singing of “My Old Kentucky Home” . A mint julep is one of them.
And a good mint julep adds the right touch of flavor to what is already a spectacular moment.
“When they say to the jockeys ‘Riders Up’ and you hear ‘Ladies and gentlemen, the horses have reached the starting gate. Now it’s post time, I still get goosebumps. That I “Be there or watch it on TV at home. It’s part of being from Kentucky or growing up there – it never leaves you. And that’s Kentucky bourbon.”
There are several notable drinking establishments around Louisville that offer their own specific twists on the “standard” mint julep.
For Collis Hillebrand of 610 Magnolia in Louisville, bourbon remains the most important ingredient in mint julep.
“You’ll want something you’d like to drink on your own. Then, of course, you’ll want some fresh mint.
This year, diners and drinkers at 610 Magnolia can enjoy a watermelon julep called “Go Baby Go.”
It’s made by blending fresh mint into the glass and adding two ounces of bourbon and one ounce of a homemade watermelon simple syrup.
“Shake with ice. Strain over fresh ice. Garnish with fresh mint and a small cube of watermelon.
And you don’t have to stop with the watermelon.
“I love Juleps which explores the use of different types of mint, like chocolate mint, pineapple mint, and lemon mint as well as non-traditional sweeteners,” Morris said. “Try sweetening your Julep with simple honey syrup or sorghum-based syrup. I also used homemade nut barley. Have fun.”
The place of the mint julep on Derby day is well deserved. “Your trip to the Kentucky Derby isn’t complete without a mint julep,” Hillebrand said.
This goes for whether you’re watching in person or not.