Pre-prohibition cocktails and modern twists on classics

Mint Julep

Mint Julep


2.5oz Bourbon

.25oz Simple Syrup

10 Mint Leaves

2 Mint Sprigs


Add the mint leaves to the bottom of a Julep Cup. Top with simple syrup. Gently press the leaves with a muddler or the back of a spoon. Add the bourbon. Fill the cup with shaved ice so that the ice mounds over the top of the cup. Garnish with the mint sprigs.


What is there to say? Fresh mint on the nose, followed by sweetened bourbon whiskey taste and a light minty finish. A super refreshing classic to cool off at the track on a warm day.

Mint Julep 2


More than just a Derby drink, the mint Julep has a history that is quite possibly longer and more interesting than any other “cocktail.” You may want to make one for yourself before reading all this…

…got one? ok, good, lets carry on then…

Folks have traced the origins of the word Julep to the Middle East, where inhabitants would mix rose petals into their water to improve its taste. This mixture was called Julab. This tradition carried on for years and eventually made its way to the Mediterranean, where as the story goes the rose-water was replaced with mint water.

Mint Julep 4

Fast forward to America in the 1700s. Naturally as we Americans do, if something tastes good with water, we inevitably decide it might taste even better with liquor. Thus southerners made a concoction of liquor and mint, which was referred to as a Julep (because we also have trouble with “foreign” words).

Possibly the first published mention of the julep was in an 1803 London book by John Davis titled Travels of Four Years and a Half in the United States of America, which described the julep as:

“a dram of spirituous liquor that has mint steeped in it, taken by Virginians of a morning.”

Davis also states he grew to love whiskey based on having it in Juleps, although the specific type of whiskey wasn’t named. Juleps however, like sours and others can be made with a variety of spirits.

We’ll touch on the different “classic” types of drinks soon, in the meantime check out an old cocktail book to get a sense of this.

What’s more interesting about this 1803 publishing of the word Julep is that the first “published” description of the word cocktail did not occur until after this book, in 1806. More on that here.

While nowadays we call almost anything mixed with liquor a cocktail, back then there were many “categories” of drinks and the word cocktail was retained for a specific type. In fact, the way most people now prepare a Mint Julep is actually more of a Smash. . . but I digress.

The Mint Julep was a hit in many notable places throughout history and has even led to a modern invention that many folks use on a daily basis.

The Round Robin Bar is in the famous, Willard Hotel, and is still a popular spot among politicians and locals. In fact, the Mint Julep is their house cocktail.

The Kentucky Senator, Henry Clay, is credited with bringing the Mint Julep to Washington, DC, during a disagreement with a British naval hero about the proper way to make a Mint Julep. Clay, being from bourbon country, claimed a proper mint julep must be made with bourbon. Taken from his diary:

“The mint leaves, fresh and tender, should be pressed against a coin-silver goblet with the back of a silver spoon. Only bruise the leaves gently and then remove them from the goblet. Half fill with cracked ice. Mellow bourbon, aged in oaken barrels, is poured from the jigger and allowed to slide slowly through the cracked ice.”

“In another receptacle, granulated sugar is slowly mixed into chilled limestone water to make a silvery mixture as smooth as some rare Egyptian oil, then poured on top of the ice. While beads of moisture gather on the burnished exterior of the silver goblet, garnish the brim of the goblet with the choicest sprigs of mint.”

Sounds refreshing doesn’t it? The Willard wasn’t the only place the Mint Julep became popular. The future Greenbrier Hotel, at the time called the The Old White Tavern was also well-known for their juleps.

Mint Julep 3

The straw has been around in some form for centuries, although it is Stone’s version that led to the modern straw used today by many.

The Julep has also inspired at least one person to innovate. In the late 1800s, a gentleman by the name of Marvin C. Stone was sitting outside in Washington, DC, drinking a Mint Julep. As was customary at the time, he drank his Julep through a shaft of rye grass, which also had the unfortunate side effect of making most drinks taste a bit grassy.

Unhappy with this option, Stone began to search for a better way. He took a piece of paper, wrapped it around a pencil to form a tube and then glued it together, creating the first “modern” straw. Stone refined his invention by creating a machine to coat it with paraffin to prevent it from becoming soggy, and eventually patented his creation in 1886, all thanks to the Mint Julep.

The success of the Julep was like many things tarnished by prohibition. When prohibition ended, the popularity of bourbon increased dramatically, thanks in part to the unfortunate downfall of rye.

In a sense the Julep has come full circle, from its rose water origins to the run for the roses.

The Mint Julep regained popularity and was frequently enjoyed at the track on hot days. The problem was that patrons were stealing the fancy Julep Cups. Wise to this, Churchill Downs did away with the metal cups in favor of “collectible” cups. At that time Mint Juleps went for about 75 cents, which included the price of the collectible cup. In 1938, Churchill Downs, named the Mint Julep the official Drink of the Kentucky Derby, forever tying the drink to the famous run for the roses.

Mint Julep 5

Beyond an official drink of the Kentucky Derby, there is also an official Mint Julep recipe and an official bourbon of the Derby as well. Confusing at first, but let’s see if we can clear things up.

Early Times is referred to as Kentucky Whisky. For more on whiskey vs whisky, go here. For more on what makes bourbon qualify as bourbon, go here.

For over 18 years, Early Times has been and remains in the Official Mint Julep recipe. What’s interesting about this is that Early Times is not technically bourbon, as a portion of the product is aged in used barrels.

Never fear, Brown-Forman, makers of Early Times, just happen to make a pretty amazing bourbon as well, Woodford Reserve.  Woodford Reserve is now the official bourbon of the derby and is used in the higher end Mint Juleps, including the $1000 Mint Julep Cup. You read right, $1000. This limited number of gorgeous Julep cups are filled at the event, with proceeds going to equestrian charities.

This year (2013) marks the 75th anniversary of the Mint Julep being the official drink of the Kentucky Derby and the folks at Woodford Reserve have upped the ante, selling 10 incredible prestige cups as well for $2000, again with proceeds for charity. To see the cups and learn more, go here.


Had to many Mint Juleps reading all that? Go for something a little different and try The Chartrulep and the Mint Blulep.

5 Responses to “Mint Julep”

    • The Straight Up

      Great idea! I’ve been messing with some ice cube “infusion” ideas but hadn’t thought of the mint. They look really cool as well.


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