“His breath in her face was strong with Bourbon whiskey mingled with the faint fragrance of mint...a combination of odors that she always associated with her father and instinctively liked in other men.”
It appears Gone with the Wind’s iconic Scarlett O’Hara could’ve been wooed by the smell of a Mint Julep cocktail on a man’s breath. We can’t blame her - this bourbon mint cocktail is rather intriguing. While it’s often enjoyed within the context of the Kentucky Derby, we believe a classic Mint Julep is meant for year-round pleasure.
History of the Mint Julep Cocktail
The Mint Julep is a drink that has truly been around for ages. According to David Wondrich, one of the world’s most authoritative sources on cocktail history, there are two references to the julep being a recreational drink in 1770 in Virginia. He also believes it to be the first true American drink.
Additionally, Woodford Reserve’s master distiller, Chris Morris, states that the cocktail’s popularity began when farmers would wake up at dawn to begin work. The julep was seen as an equivalent of coffee in today’s society. He says, “One sip and pow! The farmers were ready to face the long day.”
In 1803 the Mint Julep was first referenced in print as “dram of spirituous liquor that has mint in it, taken by Virginians in the morning.” While the cocktail was originally a Virginia drink, bartender Orsamus Willard at the City Hotel in New York really popularized the version we know today with shaved ice.
The cocktail started out as a rum drink, and then during the Revolutionary War, it was made with whiskey. However, after America got rich again the julep turned into a brandy drink - but only up until the Civil War when the country started losing money. The Mint Julep then flipped back to bourbon following the war.
Of course, the history of the Mint Julep is not complete without discussing its signature spot at the Kentucky Derby. In 1938 the julep became Churchill Down’s signature drink. The venue began to serve the cocktail in souvenir glasses for 75 cents a drink. It’s estimated that 120,000 mint juleps are enjoyed at the Derby each year. This production takes 254,000 ounces of bourbon, 4,000 pounds of fresh mint and 60,000 pounds of ice.
The Five Best Bourbons for Making Mint Juleps
The best bourbon to use for a Mint Julep is one that you enjoy. You don’t have to pour the most expensive or unique bourbon in order to make the drink shine. The simplicity of the drink allows for the spirit to take center stage, so it really just needs to be something you love.
This list is meant to provide guidance if you’re looking to level up your liquor cabinet for this bourbon-centric cocktail. We recommend using bourbon with a little bit more of a kick at 90 proof or higher. This is especially true for hotter days when the cocktail needs to stand out among the shaved ice, which will add plenty of dilution.
If you’re looking for a higher quality bourbon recommended by bartenders who know their stuff, use one of these. Consider it a map for bourbon exploration. For you culinarily oriented folks, we've added flavor profiles and tasting notes. Hmmm... Bourbon Party anyone?
These are just some of the bourbons we're currently exploring, but certainly not the only options. Once we get to the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, this post will probably be revised! So if you have a brand of bourbon you really love in your cupboard, then pour it over ice and garnish with mint. You’ll still be rewarded with a refreshing sweet cocktail. A few affordable options that should be widely available, even at that shady corner liquor store (hey, we've all been in a pinch) are Wild Turkey, Maker’s Mark and Buffalo Trace.
How to Make the Mint Julep Cocktail
There are three key aspects to making a proper Mint Julep to take into consideration.
Crushed Ice: The first necessary piece is using crushed ice, which also relates back to the temperature. If you've got access to pebbled ice, good for you! Using smaller ice creates more ice surface area, so the Mint Julep will chill and dilute more quickly and efficiently. Dilution is an essential component to this drink, and using the right ice will make sure you don't end up with a warm sip of scorching hot spirit. To crush ice, use a blender, ice crusher, or our traditional favorite: a Lewis bag and muddler.
Muddled Mint: Please, handle your mint delicately. It’s a very dainty herb and over muddling it creates a bitter taste. It should be muddled just enough to release the oil of the mint. Read more here about How to Muddle Mint for Cocktails the RIGHT Way.
Julep Cups: Finally, traditional juleps are served in metal cups because the material acts as a conductor and radiates heat away from the drink more quickly. This is of particular benefit when sipping on a julep during a hot summer day or at the Derby. Yes, this is the best way to serve the cocktail, but you also do not need to spend a fortune to do so. Don't have julep cups yet? highball glasses are a perfect alternative for serving this bourbon mint cocktail, and a large old fashioned glass would do well in a pinch too.
If you are making Mint Juleps for a crowd, you can make the majority of the cocktail beforehand. Combine your mint and simple syrup to make pouring cocktails easier and quicker. Make a mint simple syrup by bringing equal parts sugar and water to a boil then adding the mint sprigs. Allow it to steep for about an hour then finish off by straining the mint out. You can then mix a large quantity of bourbon with your simple syrup and keep it in the fridge. When the party begins all you need to do is prepare cups of ice, pour the boozy mixture on top and add a mint garnish. Off to the races!
Classic Mint Julep Cocktail Recipe
4-10 mint leaves
0.5 oz simple syrup
2.5 oz Bourbon whiskey of your choice
Gather your Mint Julep recipe ingredients. Place your mint leaves and simple syrup in your julep cup or cocktail glass. Muddle enough to dissolve the sugar and release the oil and aroma of the mint. Try to muddle them across the entire interior of the cup with a gentle pressing (not crushing) motion. Fill your glass with crushed ice, then add your Bourbon and stir using a barspoon until completely chilled. Top off your Mint Julep with more crushed ice, shaping it into a bit of a dome that extends about an inch or two above the top of the glass. Garnish with a mint sprig if you're stingy, or a giant wad of mint that you've gathered by the stems. If you really want to show off, spank the hank of mint against the top edges of the glass to release some of those aromatic oils before nestling the stem ends into the cocktail at the edge of the glass.
Mint Julep Variations and Substitutions
As you know, we always want to provide our readers with variations and substitutions to our classic cocktails. It's more fun that way! Here are a few riffs on this Bourbon Mint Cocktail to fix your fancy.
Official Mint Julep Recipe of the Kentucky Derby
This recipe comes from Churchill Down’s Executive Chef David Danielson.
2 oz Woodford Reserve
1 oz mint simple syrup
Sprig of fresh mint
Fill your glass with crushed ice so that it overextends by about an inch. Pour the Woodford Reserve and simply syrup over the ice. Stir with a cocktail spoon. Garnish with sprig of fresh mint.
Gin Mint Julep
For those who don’t love Bourbon, try a Gin Mint Julep for something refreshing and light.
8 mint leaves
1 oz simple syrup
2.5 oz gin
Place your mint leaves and simple syrup into the bottom of the cup. Lightly muddle the mint to release its oils. Fill your glass completely with crushed ice. Pour the gin over the crushed ice. Finish with a lime wedge and lightly stir to mix.
Muddled Fruit Mint Juleps
An easy but flavorful way to mix up the Mint Julep is by adding muddled fruit. We’ve found that berries are typically the best fruits to use for muddling. This holds especially true for the Mint Julep! We love using fresh blackberries and strawberries. To do so, muddle the fruit into your glass alongside the mint when preparing your julep.
Use Flavored Simple Syrups
You can always give your cocktail a bit of flair by switching the type of simple syrup you use. In the official Mint Julep recipe, the syrup is not flavored, but that shouldn’t deter you from giving some flavors a try. A few popular flavors include basil, thyme and rosemary.
To make a flavor-infused simple syrup bring one part water and one part sugar to a boil. Whisk until the sugar is dissolved. Add your herb of choice (typically about 4 - 6 sprigs for every one cup of water) and let simmer for 60 minutes. Remove from the heat and allow to steep for another 30 minutes while the syrup cools. Strain the cooled syrup through a fine-mesh strainer and store in the refrigerator.
The Mint Julep is not just for the Derby, it can shine bright throughout the entire year. And remember, the best type of Bourbon to use is the one you like most!
Rachel Eva & Shawn Michael