History of the Mint Julep

by Richard Peristere

A Frosted Mug. Crushed Ice. Sterling Silver Highball glass. They all go hand in hand to create the classic Mint Julep. But why? Let's dive into the history of the Mint Julep first. 

From Ancient Persia to the Kentucky Derby?

While the Mint Julep is a classic American cocktail, its origins are a little less clear. "Julep" is thought to be originally derived from the Persian word Golab, which means Rosewater. Rosewater was a spirit derived from the sugars of a rose and was a popular drink around the Mediterranean.

Persia to Virgina to Kentucky to Churchill Downs

The Rosewater drink eventually migrated to 18th century Virginia, where doctor's thought the Rosewater had curative properties. The rosewater alcohol was replaced with abundant local rum and became a substitute for coffee. As the Julep migrated to Kentucky, the rum was swapped out for Kentucky Bourbon.

P.S Always funny how Doctor's would prescribe bourbon or other drinks as a remedy.

How Did the Mint Julep and Kentucky Derby become so connected?

The link between mint juleps and the racetrack dates back to at least the 1820s, when references appear to sterling silver julep cups being awarded as trophies to first-place jockeys. The trophy tied together Kentucky's most well-known industries: horse racing, bourbon, silver.

Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr. built the Churchill Downs facility and inaugurated the debut Kentucky Derby in 1875. The grandson of William Clark of the 1804 expedition fame, Clark Jr. was a colorful figure in his own right, would often pull out a gun to end arguments. Talk about a recipe for disaster..

Polish Actress? Mint Juleps?

The first bit of famous Derby julep lore occurred in 1877 when the event welcomed a celebrity visitor: the famous Polish actress Helena Modjeska. As legend has it, Clark toasted to Helena as she was passed a very large mint julep, meant for sharing with a group. Helena liked it so much she kept it for herself and ordered another.

By the 1920s, the drink was an ingrained enough ritual at the Derby that at the onset of Prohibition, Southern newspapers were filled with accounts of journalists bemoaning the fact that they wouldn't be able to sip their beloved juleps at the races any longer.

the ban on alcohol, sign, prohibition

But it wasn't till 1939 that the mint julep actually became the event's official cocktail. Racetrack managers realized that visitors were stealing the water glasses that juleps were served in, and began selling the glasses as souvenirs.

Today, the julep is embedded in Derby ceremony itself: at the Winner's Party, the governor of Kentucky toasts to the victor with a sterling silver julep cup.

The Mint Julep has moved beyond Churchill Downs and now is a classic cocktail favorite enjoyed across the country.

Why the Sterling Silver Mug?

Now to the julep cup, the Sterling Silver or Copper Mug meant to demonstrate a level class.The sleek design associated with the cup is accredited to master silver smiths Asa Blanchard of Lexington, Ky and brothers William and Archibald Cooper of Louisville.  There are two styles of julep cups:  one with a beaded rim and the other showcasing bands at the top.

 Churchill Downs, the location of the Kentucky Derby, began producing official mug in 1950 and is seen as a premier gift in southern circles. While the glass was always meant to be silver during the depression and early 1940's there was a major silver shortage and copper mugs became a simple substitute. Since the 1950's a silver mug has been presented to the sitting US president inscribed with their name.

Why the Crushed Ice?

The key to any great mint julep is a huge amount of crushed ice. Why so much crushed ice? Because a mint julep is intended be enjoyed with a high-proof bourbon. As the ice melts inside the high-proof bourbon becomes easier to drink. The sterling silver or copper allows the glass to frost which a nice way to cool your hand. This refreshing mint steeped cocktail is meant to be enjoyed slowly and will pair nicely with the heat of a summer derby day.

Be Careful with the Fresh Mint

Many beginner's making their first Mint Julep make the mistake of muddling the mint leaves too much. Simple rule is to use fresh mint, keep the mint sprig, fill a glass with crushed ice, even more crushed ice, the lightly muddle to avoid any excessive altoid like flavors.


Want to be the Star of Your Derby Party?

mint juleps, mint, alcohol

Ready to make some Mint Juleps? Be sure to buy fresh mint from your local store and make some simple syrup. Try our recipe here and buy your own julep cup here.

Remember, be sure to serve the mint julep full of ice and mint leaves for that delicious taste. For a drink that is less sweet use less simple syrup, Enjoy with or without a straw.


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