Mint Juleps! The classic Kentucky Derby bourbon cocktail is the perfect refreshing drink for enjoying on race day! Learn how to make a classic mint julep recipe and a few delicious variations.
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Looking for the ultimate cocktail for your Kentucky Derby party? Look no further: Classic Mint Juleps are the ultimate Derby Day drink. Made with potent bourbon, refreshing mint and sweet simple syrup, this boozy beverage has stood the test of time and is still enjoyed today at Churchill Downs and beyond.
The Mint Julep may have been declared the "official drink of The Kentucky Derby" in 1938, but its history -- at least its name -- dates back centuries.
The word "julep" is thought to have originated from the Persian word "julab", which was an aromatic mixture of rose petals and water. Mediterranean mint eventually replaced rose petals. Fast forward to the 18th century; liquor was added to the equation (sometimes medicinally!), pronunciation was changed to something that rolled off of the American tongue, and the mint julep we know was born.
Mint juleps caught on as a popular, refreshing racetrack drink long before becoming synonymous with the Kentucky Derby. When it was discovered that visitors and patrons were stealing the water glasses in which mint juleps were served, track managers decided to sell the cocktails in souvenir glasses and the link became official.
Unlike the Kentucky Derby, an event filled with pomp and pageantry, a classic mint julep recipe requires very few frills. You'll need:
- High quality, high proof bourbon whisky
- Fresh mint
- Simple syrup*
- Shaved or crushed ice**
*A note on simple syrup: Simple syrup is made by bringing equal parts of sugar and water to a boil until the sugar is dissolved. It's a great thing to have on hand for cocktails and cold beverages such as iced tea, iced lattes and lemonade. If you don't feel like making it yourself (though it really only takes 2 minutes!), you can also buy prepared simple syrup at the grocery or liquor store.
Additionally, flavored simple syrups are a fun and easy way to change up your juleps! See below for variations.
**A note on ice: Crushed or shaved ice is essential for a proper mint julep! I'm sorry, I don't make the rules.
If you can't get your hands on some crushed or shaved ice, you can easily make it yourself by filling the pitcher of your blender with ice and pulsing until it's a fine, snowy consistency. That's how I made the ice seen in these photos and it worked out just fine.
How to Make It
The mint julep-making technique can certainly vary (and even get controversial) among those with a fondness for the cocktail, but the ultimate goal is to accentuate the bourbon, which is the star of the show, not overpower it.
Here is how I do it:
- Place a few fresh mint leaves in a glass or silver mint julep cup. Lightly bruise the mint with the back of a spoon, trying not to tear or shred. This will release some of the essential oils from the mint -- do not over-muddle as this can make the drink taste more like breath mints and less like a refreshing cocktail.
- Add simple syrup to the glass.
- Pour in bourbon.
- Pack cup tightly with crushed or shaved ice. Stir with a bar spoon until outside of the cup is frosted.
- Add enough crushed or shaved ice to create a dome on top.
- "Slap" a sprig of mint, or clap between your hands (this will help release the aroma), and garnish glass.
It is said that mint juleps are best enjoyed with a straw, in order to pick up on all the notes of the ingredients, so buy some cute ones and enjoy!
What kind of bourbon should I use?
Due to the fact that the bourbon is, in fact, the most prominent note in a mint julep recipe, you'll want to make sure that you choose one that you enjoy!
It is suggested that the bourbon you choose is in the mid-80 to 90 proof range for a twofold purpose: To keep the ice from melting as quickly, and to keep the bourbon from getting too diluted by the melting ice.
Woodford Reserve, Maker's Mark, Old Forester and Knob Creek are all decent options, but feel free to experiment with your favorite bourbons.
Mint Julep Cups
As iconic as the cocktail itself is the vessel in which it is served! Mint julep cups bring a bit of elegance and tradition to the drink, but their design isn't just for looks.
Mint julep cups are typically made of silver or pewter. Their shape, with a beaded or banded rim and a wide-footed base, makes it easy to grip the cup on the top or bottom, preventing the heat from hands to warm the drink inside and allowing the sides to frost over.
Genuine vintage silver julep cups can be hunted down on Etsy or antique shops, but if you don't mind something with less history, then they're easy to find online for reasonable prices.
I know, I know... if it's not just bourbon, simple syrup (or sugar), mint and ice, then it's not a real julep! (I see you, purists!)
Years ago when I threw a Kentucky Derby party, I set up a mint julep bar with flavored syrups, and it was quite a hit! It can be a lot of fun to mix and match, syrups, fruits and herbs to come up with your own Derby concoctions.
If you don't mind straying from tradition, try out these mint julep recipe variations:
- Peach-Basil Mint Julep: Create a simple syrup by combining ½ cup water and ½ cup sugar in a small saucepan, and bringing to a boil until the sugar has dissolved. While the mixture is still hot, add fresh basil leaves. Allow them to steep for 30 minutes in the simple syrup. Press lightly on basil leaves, strain the syrup into a container and discard leaves. When ready to make julep, muddle a slice of fresh peach in the bottom of the glass with 1 tablespoon syrup before adding bourbon and ice.
- Blackberry Mint Juleps: Create blackberry simple syrup by combining ½ cup water, ½ cup sugar and ½ cup halved blackberries in a small saucepan; bring to a boil until the sugar has dissolved. While the mixtures is still hot, add a handful of fresh mint leaves. Allow to steep for 10-15 minutes. Press lightly on mint leaves and softened blackberries, strain the syrup into a container and discard leaves and crushed berries. When ready to make julep, muddle a few fresh blackberries in the bottom of the glass with 1 tablespoon simple syrup before adding bourbon and ice. Garnish with mint sprig.
- Sweet Tea Mint Julep: Two classic Southern beverages join forces in this refreshing infusion! Get the recipe here.
More Kentucky Derby Recipes
Now that cocktails are covered, it's time to plan what else you'll serve at your Kentucky Derby party! Here are some of my favorites:
Classic Mint Julep
- 4 fresh mint leaves plus extra sprigs for garnish
- 2 ounces good quality bourbon
- ½ ounce simple syrup see above for directions
- Place mint leaves in a glass or mint julep cup. Press on them lightly with the back of a spoon to release the essential oils. Remove from glass if desired.
- Add simple syrup to the glass.
- Pour in bourbon.
- Pack cup tightly with crushed or shaved ice. Stir until outside of the cup is frosted. Add enough crushed or shaved ice to create a dome on top.
- "Slap" a sprig of mint, or clap between your hands, and garnish glass. Serve with a straw.