The Mint Julep

It’s a Kentucky thing; or is it? The Mint Julep has certainly been associated with bourbon and Kentucky for a long time. Its origins are somewhat sketchy, but I’ll throw my 2 cents worth in on why it’s so connected to bourbon, and to the great Commonwealth of Kentucky.

A drink with the staying power and legendary status of the Mint Julep usually needs a few passionate bar keeps involved by either featuring it on the menu, and/or having it linked to an event. A couple good examples of this is the Pimm’s Cup at the Napoleon House in the French Quarter, and the Irish Coffee at Buena Vista in San Francisco. At both these places they make hundreds of their house specialties every single day! Who knows how it started at these places, but when you visit either one, you’ve got to, no you MUST, have one of those drinks.

When you come to Kentucky, odds are you’ll order an Old Fashioned (created at the Pendennis Club in Louisville), a Manhattan, or of course a Mint Julep. One thing you’ll find out, or something you might not even notice, is that us locals do not drink Mint Juleps other than Oaks Day and Derby Day. But with the popularity of the Bourbon Trail Distillery Tours, and the Urban Bourbon Trail (21 bars that carry at least 50 bourbons on their bars) visitors have been wanting to sample this refreshing Southern delight.

The Mint Julep can be traced back to the Middle East from a drink made from water and rose petals called the Julab. This practice probably came to be from making the water more palatable. Back then, water was the liquid of last resort. Unless you had a fresh stream on your property, you’d better be careful of the water you drank. That’s one reason people drank beer/wine/spirits, or added things like bitters, or brewed it and added leaves to it.

The Julab certainly found its way to the new world, and the Julep was born probably somewhere in there. The Julep was a Southern drink. Maybe since it’s cousin, the Mojito was down in the Islands in the Caribbean. The Mojito is like a Mint Julep on crack…it’s basically a Mint Julep with muddled limes added to the mint. In the Caribbean they use rum as the base spirit, in the Mojito, and thusly I’m sure rum was used in some early versions of the Mint Julep, and the most popular version used brandy as it’s base spirit.

The bourbon based Mint Julep evolved and accelerated probably because of passionate people who loved it, most notable and very well liked politician from the great Commonwealth of Kentucky, Henry Clay. Mr. Clay served as United States Senator on three separate occasions from 1807-1811, 1831-1842, and finally from 1849 until his death in 1852. He also served a term as Secretary of State from 1825-1829. Senator Clay made the Mint Julep famous at the world renound Willard Hotel’s Round Robin Bar in Washington DC. His fellow congressmen no doubt took that drink and shared it along with his passion to constituents in their districts and I can imagine them saying something like, “this is what the good folks in Kentucky drink to cool off the humid summers there in the Bluegrass State.”

We also owe the Mint Julep a great thank you for the straw.  The straw was invented because of the Mint Julep because of the mint that was used as garnish that was almost like a bouquet of flowers coming out of the drink.  So in order to get a drink, they needed to invent the straw!

After the Civil War, Temperance Movement, WWI, and Prohibition all but killed bourbon, Churchill Downs made the Mint Julep the “Official Drink” of the Kentucky Derby in 1938. The Kentucky Derby was and still is, THE social event of the season, and is the epitome of fashion and style for all classes of folks. From factory workers, to celebrities, to royalty in front all the media, the Derby leads the fashion and style for the upcoming year.

It just so happened the year before, the management of the track noticed that all these well dressed people were stealing the cool Mint Julep glasses from the bar! So ever since then they have sold the glass and all with the Mint Julep at Churchill Downs on Oaks and Derby Day. Today they sell 150,000 mint juleps in those 2 days alone, but it all started that first Saturday in May in 1938 when Lawrin won the garland of roses with Eddie Arcaro up in the stirrups.  So Churchill Downs and he Mint Julep can be given quite a bit of kudo’s for reinvigerating the interest and consumption of bourbon.

Growing up, my parents would always go to the track on Derby Day to entertain guests of the brewery so my dad’s sisters would baby sit us for the day. Aunt Bern taught me how to make Mint Juleps, and since I made them every year for us, I think I make a pretty damn good one. But like most Louisvillians I only drink them on Oaks and Derby Day.

Sterling silver Mint Julep cups are also something that highlights this drink. I mean what could be more aristocratic then sipping out of sterling silver? I have my parents set of silver Mint Julep cups, and I always have one with me as I travel the country and the world. My parents would throw parties in the 1960’s-70’s and when they did, they served all the drinks in those cups. They weren’t Mint Juleps since it wasn’t Derby, but highballs and the like. If they had more guests than cups, they’d borrow the neighbors, and since we all had our own monograms on them, we always knew who’s was who’s.

With 160,000 people attending the Derby every year, and most of them from out of town (we locals like to throw our own parties that day and watch the spectacle on T.V) that’s a lot of folks going back to their home towns after being swept up in the magic of the Derby and our passion for bourbon, and they probably go back home saying, “this is what the folks in Kentucky drink”. So just like Henry Clay started back in the first Golden Age of Bourbon, the Kentucky Derby and now the Bourbon Trail, and Urban Bourbon Trail all have secured the Mint Julep as truly one of the most iconic drinks not only in the bourbon world, but in the spirits world.


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