This quintessential Kentucky Derby drink is simple in its list of ingredients but complex in its execution. Here’s how to do it right!
Bourbon is the quintessential American whiskey and the drink of choice of many of the best pitmasters in the south. Made from at least 51% corn, and especially when made, filtered and aged in Kentucky, bourbon can rival the world’s finest Cognacs in richness, depth, and complexity.
Mint, on the other hand, is a weed. Plant some now and you’ll be engulfed by it in two years. There are many types, so go to the plant store and pinch a few leaves to see what you like best. The two main types, spearmint and peppermint, both work well in mint juleps. Pick the one you like the best. Or pick two.
By the time the Kentucky Derby rolls around on the first weekend in May, mint is ready to pick, even in harsher climes, and it flourishes all summer long sporting lovely lavender flowers by midsummer.
The refreshing mint julep cocktail became the official drink of the Derby in 1938 and was served in water glasses. According to the Derby Museum at Churchill Downs in Louisville, the glasses disappeared from the track dining room. So management started charging 25¢ per glass and the most popular race souvenir was born. They are collector’s items and older glasses command hundreds of dollars on eBay. By 2010 the production run was up to 700,000 and they can be bought in stores. Sterling Silver Julep Cups were introduced in 1951 and they play an important role in Derby lore. Traditionally, the governor of Kentucky salutes the victorious Derby owner with a toast at the fashionable Winner’s Party following the race. The official silver cups sell for $750 on their website. You can order unofficial mint julep cups on Amazon for much less and read more about the drink in the book The Kentucky Mint Julep by Colonel Joe Nickel.
My wife and I always watch the Derby with a mint julep in hand. Tell us about your Derby traditions.
Serve with: canapés.
- 10 mint leaves, stems removed
- 1 tablespoon sugar, more or less to taste
- 1 1/2 ounces clean fresh spring water or seltzer water to liven it up
- 3 ounces premium Bourbon
- Crushed ice
- 2 dashes Angostura bitters
- 1 sprig of mint for garnish
- Prep. Rinse the mint leaves to make sure any dirt splashed on the underside of the leaves is gone. Don't dry them. The moisture from the rinse is helpful in making the drink.
- Put the leaves in a 12-ounce cocktail glass and pour the sugar on top. Muddle them together gently with a muddler or the handle of a wooden spoon. When the leaves and wet sugar begin to turn a little mushy, add the water and the bourbon, and stir with a fork until the sugar dissolves.
- Serve. Top with crushed ice, add a couple dashes of Angostura bitters, garnish with the sprig of mint, add a straw, and you're off!