The Mint Julep—the classic drink of the Kentucky Derby. Whether you’re attending the Derby, hosting a Derby party, or just want to enjoy a cool, refreshing drink it’s always good to know how to make one.
What makes the Mint Julep so special? The bright, fresh flavor of mint paired with sugar or simple syrup is always a good start. Adding lemon, lime, or other flavors elevates the humble julep to a higher plane. But a straight shot of Kentucky bourbon with lots of crushed ice make the Julep the drink happy Southerners say “yes” to any time of year.
Long associated with the South, the Mint Julep is a relatively simple drink with fresh mint, bourbon, sugar and shaved ice. A quick online search yields a large number of recipes for mint juleps, and even Martha Stewart’s website offers more than 20 recipes for the drink, including variations like peach and spearmint juleps, a Gin Julep, and non-drink recipes such as Mint Julep Gelatin With Whipped Cream.
With all these variations, it’s no wonder you might not know where to start. Test the basic with this recipe before you begin adding non-traditional ingredients. Once you find your favorite version, you’ll be happily serving your signature Mint Julep to your guests for any occasion.
The Basic Recipe
These drinks are traditionally served in little silver tumblers, but if you don’t have them, just use standard 8-ounce glasses.
For one Mint Julep, you’ll need:
- 6 mint leaves, plus another sprig for garnish
- 2 teaspoons turbinado or granulated sugar
- 1 shot bourbon, about 1½ ounces
- 2 tablespoons of water
- Confectioners’ sugar, for garnish (optional)
Add the sugar, water and mint leaves and crush them together in the glass using a mortar or the back of a spoon (called “muddling.”) This releases the mint’s oils into the sugar, and later, into the cocktail. Fill the glass with crushed ice, and add the shot of bourbon. Stir carefully, adding confectioner’s sugar and mint for garnish.
Other variations use different types of simple syrup in place of the sugar, and incorporate lemons or limes into the mix. You can also dampen the top edge of the glass and dip it in sugar right before serving, similar to “salting” a glass for margaritas.
Kentucky’s Signature Spirit
Since the only spirit in the Mint Julep is bourbon, it’s important to use a high quality bourbon for a great drink.
Kentucky is synonymous with bourbon, and is the only form of whiskey produced in the US. The “mashbill,” or base used to produce it, is required to be made from 51% to 80% corn. Distillers are allowed to choose the rest of the ingredients, and usually use wheat, rye and and malted barley. Most mashbill is made from about 70% corn, and the rest is used to flavor the bourbon. The liquor is aged in new white oak barrels that are charred on the inside, and are aged from 5 years to as long as 27 years. But the age of the bourbon must be stated on the label if it’s less than 4 years.
The only thing added to bourbon is water, and its proof tops out at around 80%.
Most bourbon drinkers are familiar with the well-known brands like Maker’s Mark, Jim Beam, and Wild Turkey. But in recent years, craft distillers have also begun producing small-batch artisan bourbon for more discriminating tastes. If you’re traveling to the Bluegrass State, you can take a tour on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail and visit some of those distilleries.
While whiskey can be made anywhere in the US, it can only be called “Kentucky Straight Whiskey” if it’s made in Kentucky. But craft bourbon is also being produced in states like Texas. In fact, six of the south’s top craft bourbon distilleries are in the Lone Star State.
Run For The Roses Party
If you’re considering having a party to celebrate the Kentucky Derby, the Mint Julep is just one of the traditions to include on the menu.
You can find ideas from Martha Stewart’s website, complete with a dress code (with pastels and big hats), lots of roses, and of course, the signature cocktail, with recipes for your party, too. MentalFloss offers eight traditional Derby foods, including a Julep recipe and more authentic Derby foods like the Kentucky Hot Brown sandwich, Bourbon Balls (a type of chocolate trifle), and a stew called “Kentucky Burgoo,” similar to Louisiana’s signature gumbo, and incorporates bourbon.