Kentucky Derby Days: The History of the Mint Julep

An Absolute Cocktail Classic

This Saturday, May 5th, marks the 144th running of the Kentucky Derby, the first of the Triple Crown races and many would argue the crown jewel of the sport. Like many sports traditions, there’s a certain amount of imbibing involved, and in the case of the ‘running of the roses’, it’s the noble mint julep. Over 120,000 will be consumed at Churchill Downs this weekend, and with good reason: they’re delicious. But before we get into the traditional recipe, as well as our own mule-ified version, let’s dive a little bit into the history of this cocktail.

The bourbon cocktail traveled west to Kentucky from Virginia, where it was once made with spirits like rum and brandy. It’s been whispered that the drink, traditionally made with sugar syrup and mint, was once cherished for its medicinal properties and was used by farmers for a jolt akin to coffee before they took the fields in the morning.

The mint julep as we now know it became the official drink of the Kentucky Derby in 1938. By then, Kentucky bourbon, distilled far from the sugar-rich Caribbean, had replaced its more saccharine cousins as the main spirit in the cocktail.

Mint juleps were served in pewter julep cups with crushed or shaved ice for a specific reason: The purpose of the cups isn’t immediately clear to most drinkers because they are holding them wrong. Julep cups should only be held by the top or the bottom so that the crushed ice inside them can create a frost on the outside.

Classic Mint Julep:

Ingredients: 2 Sprigs Fresh Mint, 1/2oz Simple Syrup, 2oz Bourbon, Shaved or Crushed Ice

Directions: Gently bruise one of the mint sprigs in the bottom of a highball glass with the Simple Syrup, then add the bourbon. Strain into a julep cup, add crushed ice until overflowing, and garnish with the remaining mint sprig.

Derby Mule:
If you’re looking for the perfect Derby edition mule for your Moscow Copper Co mugs, then just pop over here to find our Derby Mule Recipe.

Now for those of you that will scoff at the idea of a Mint Mule Julep, let it be known that in recent years the Derby has offered a myriad of takes on the classic, often at exorbitant prices. Because the race falls on Cinco de Mayo this year, Patron is offering an anejo edition for $2500. A Woodford Reserve cocktail will set you back a cool $1000, unless you want it in the limited edition ‘Commonwealth Cup’, which is $2500 on its own (it sold out last year).

Personally, we feel that money is best put towards a healthy wager on the horse of your choice.