Why The Ingredients in Your Mint Julep Matter

Why The Ingredients in Your Mint Julep Matter

By Peyton Whittington Published March 2024

It wouldn’t be Derby Day without cascading garlands of red roses, outrageous hats and fascinators, and, of course, frosted silver cups topped with mint and a dome of deliciously crunchable crushed ice.

The mint julep has been a Kentucky Derby essential for almost a century. But what is the story of this uniquely Kentuckian cocktail? How did it come to be beloved by the race-going masses? Most of all, how do you make one that tastes so good that your living room feels like Churchill Downs? We’ll answer all these questions and more in this breakdown of the mint julep, the significance of its ingredients and its sweetly Southern origins.

The Mint Julep’s Horse-Tory

The mint julep has been the official drink of the Kentucky Derby since 1939, but this bourbon-based beverage was likely being enjoyed by onlookers since the very first Derby in 1875. Juleps (drinks made with mint, sugar, crushed ice and a spirit like bourbon or rum) were gulped down by the upper echelons of society below the Mason-Dixie line all the way back to the early 1800s. However, juleps and races started to become officially linked in the 1820s when sterling silver julep cups were awarded to jockeys as first place trophies.

“It ties together two of Kentucky’s most well-known industries: horse racing and bourbon,” Chris Goodlett, senior curator of collections at the Kentucky Derby Museum, told CNN Travel in 2020.1

We get our first tidbit of mint julep lore in 1877, when Polish actress Helena Modjeska attended the Kentucky Derby. The story goes that Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr., father of the Kentucky Derby (and yes, the grandson of THAT Clark), passed around a giant mint julep meant for sharing among a group. Helena liked it so much that she downed the whole thing and ordered another. Same, Helena.

Then, the drink became so popular and widely ordered at the races that it was dubbed the official drink of the Kentucky Derby in 1939. Apart from being guzzled by many a spectator, it’s also part of the race’s traditions: at the Winner’s Party, the governor of Kentucky always makes a toast to the victor with a mint julep.

And the mint julep is as popular today as it was in the 1800s. Each year, more than 125,000 mint juleps are enjoyed by guests over the two-day period of the Kentucky Oaks and Kentucky Derby weekend at Churchill Downs Racetrack. What goes into 125,000 of these traditional treats? Over 10,000 bottles of bourbon, 2,250 pounds of freshly harvested mint and 475,000 pounds of crushed ice.2 That’s a whole lotta juleps.

Ingredient Breakdown

The mint julep is an extremely simple cocktail with few components, so your choice of ingredients is paramount when mixing this drink for Derby Day. Each ingredient has a meaning and serves a purpose. Read up on each ingredient’s significance so you know how to make the perfect mint julep to sip as you watch the races.

The Bourbon

America’s official spirit is the backbone of this drink, so make sure you choose a good one. Woodford Reserve is the official bourbon of the Kentucky Derby, but any rich, robust bourbon will do. Whatever you choose, make sure it has enough weight to balance the sweetness of the sugar and coolness of the mint.

A bottle of Woodford Reserve Bourbon

The Mint

Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr., the founder of the Kentucky Derby, supposedly grew mint behind the Churchill Downs club to ensure optimum freshness when mixing up mint juleps for thirsty guests. Take it from the man himself and use fresh mint. If you grow it yourself like ole Meriwether, even better.

A potted mint plant

The Sugar

Simple syrup is traditionally used to sweeten the mint julep, but feel free to swap for whatever sweetener you prefer. We recommend keeping it natural or homemade. You can make your own simple syrup by boiling two cups sugar and two cups of water until the sugar is dissolved. Just make sure there’s a little sweetness in your silver cup to take the burn off the bourbon.

Sugar syrup in a glass bottle

The Ice

Crushed ice is integral to the mint julep’s enjoyment; cubed ice simply won’t do. The ice is meant to rapidly melt into the bourbon and sweetener, creating that thirst-quenching blend of flavors that race revelers have enjoyed for centuries.

Crushed ice

The Cup

The mule, the martini, the mint julep: if a cocktail gets its own cup, you know it’s a winner. The silver cup is more than just visually appealing, it also serves to keep the drink ice cold all race day long. In fact, the cup is an integral part of the mint julep’s history; early Derby Day racetrack managers realized that visitors were stealing the water glasses that juleps were served in, so they decided to start selling the glasses as souvenirs, a tradition that remains to this day. Serve your mint julep in the proper cup for both style and substance.

A Cupt filled with crushed ice and mint

How To Make a Proper Mint Julep

You know the history and how to choose the right ingredients. Now, it’s time for the fun part: making and enjoying a refreshing mint julep. Watch us guide you step-be-step here or read the recipe below.

Woodford Reserve Mint Julep

The Recipe

Express the oil of 3 mint leaves by gently rubbing them around the inside of the rim of a glass. Toss mint. Add simple syrup and bourbon to the cup. Fill cup halfway full of crushed ice. Stir until the liquid is completely chilled. Once it’s chilled, completely fill the cup with ice and garnish with a mint sprig.

Run for the Roses? More like run for the bourbon. Get your mint julep ingredients and other Derby Day essentials at your local ABC Fine Wine & Spirits or online at abcfws.com.

Interested in learning more? Visit our ABC Blog page.