While you may associate the mint julep with spring, horses, and fancy hats, it turns out that the famed drink didn’t start out that way. In fact, according to Fred Minnick, a spirits author, bourbon curator, and tasting expert known for his whiskey palate, the julep started out as the furthest thing from what we associate it with today—not a good-time drink, but medication.
Take Your Medicine
“In ‘A Dictionary of the English Language 1755’, Dr. Samuel Johnson defined julep as ‘an extemporaneous form of medicine, made of simple and compound water sweetened, serving for a vehicle to other forms not so convenient to take alone.’ People were distilling everything back then to stay alive—the julep mixture likely made poorly-made distillates taste better,” Minnick says.
Sometime between then and 1803, he says, mint was added to the mixture and the drink soon became a popular beverage to sip in the morning, especially in the south. Minnick noted that Virginians were heavy drinkers of mint juleps during that time period.
So, how did the mint julep end up with such a strong association with Kentucky? Researchers believe it is because the drink was introduced into popular culture by Henry Clay, a U.S. senator from Kentucky. From there, Churchill Downs, where the Kentucky Derby takes place, has heavily promoted the drink as its signature libation since 1938.
Cognac, Gin, Brandy, or Bourbon?
whiskey and bourbon-based editions have surpassed any other spirit.While it seems as if the basic mint julep recipe—bourbon, sugar, mint, and ice—has been consistent through the years, there is still a controversy that surrounds the original mixture. According to the Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac (BNIC), Cognac was the original spirit used to make mint juleps. Minnick, however, says that whiskey is called for in the first official mention of the beverage. Gin and brandy, too, were popular additions to juleps at one point, but according to Minnick, the
Mint Julep Cups
No mint julep is complete without being served in a silver cup, the cocktail’s calling card. Minnick says that the reason the drink is so often served in these glasses is simple–theft.
Godinger Silver Mint Julep Cup, $16.45 on Amazon
Sip in style.
The iconic silver cups with beaded rims were introduced at Churchill Downs in the early 1950s and proved extremely popular. “According to the Kentucky Derby Museum, the glasses kept disappearing from the dining tables at Churchill Downs, so they decided to charge diners an extra 25 cents to keep them,” he says. Many did, and many imitators started making julep cups too, so you don’t actually have to go to the races to sip from one anymore.
How to Make a Mint Julep (and Friends)
Want to impress your friends on Derby Day? We have the classic mint julep recipe right here. Add some seasonal fruit as a garnish or a dash of rosewater for a sophisticated vibe. Get our Mint Julep recipe.
Prefer something a bit stronger to sip on while you watch your favorite horse run the track? Check out this bourbon sour, made with an egg white and simple syrup. Make it even more authentic with a Kentucky bourbon. Get our Bourbon Sour recipe.
Need something to snack on while you sip your Derby Day cocktails? Try these spiced candied pecans, made with sugar, spice, and everything nice. Oh, and butter. Get our Spiced Candied Pecans recipe.
Related Video: The Mint Julep Is Not Just a Mojito Made With Bourbon
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