It’s that time of year again, folks: the Kentucky Derby is upon us. This Saturday, more than 150,000 attendees will descend upon Churchill Downs in Louisville to witness what many—some sincerely, others sarcastically—refer to as “the greatest two minutes in sports.” Whether or not you’re interested in horse racing, though, it’s undeniable that the Derby is nearly as legendary in American drinking culture as it is in sporting history.
This is thanks, of course, to the Mint Julep. Though it’s only been the official drink of the Kentucky Derby since 1938, julep recipes date back over 200 years and were originally prescribed as treatments for nausea and other minor ailments. The exact ingredients and preparation have undoubtedly evolved over the course of its storied history, but today we’re going to take a look at a classic recipe that will keep even the most reluctant Derby viewer feeling refreshed and celebratory all weekend.
The Mint Julep
1 – The Cup
In keeping with the genteel pomp and circumstance of the Derby, the Mint Julep is traditionally served in a stately silver or pewter cup. When filled with ice and left to chill for a few minutes, it presents a layer of frost on its surface that’s eminently enticing on a hot, humid Kentucky afternoon. If you’re not quite feeling dedicated enough to get your hands on one, though, a highball glass will do just fine.
2 – The Mint and Sugar
Start by adding a few sprigs of fresh mint to the bottom of your julep cup, followed by roughly one ounce of simple syrup. Using a wooden muddler, gently muddle the mint and syrup together. You don’t have to go nuts, but make sure that you’ve applied enough pressure to release some of the mint’s essential oils. At this point, you can either choose to leave the mint in the bottom of the cup, or remove it a la Dale DeGroff. And because many find the julep to be an overly sweet, cloying drink (it certainly can be), feel free to adjust the amount of simple syrup to taste.
3 – The Ice
Central to the creation of a Mint Julep is properly crushed ice. Start by placing the cubes in a canvas bag or wrapping them in a cloth napkin, then use your muddler as a hammer to smash the ice into small, powdery chunks. The canvas or cloth serves to absorb any extra moisture, which keeps it from becoming too slushy. Once the ice is prepared, fill the julep cup all the way to the top. You’re welcome to use crushed ice from your freezer instead, but this method is more traditional and a lot more fun.
4 – The Bourbon
When it comes to the spirit, we don’t recommend using anything too expensive unless you’ve got some income that desperately needs disposing. Woodford Reserve is one of the official bourbons of the Derby, and a decent choice if you’re going for authenticity, but any of your favorites should work out nicely. Just remember that this isn’t an Old-Fashioned, and the character of the whiskey gets a little lost in the mint, sugar, and rapidly-melting ice.
Once you’ve filled the cup with said ice, pour in about half of your bourbon (1-1½ ounces) and let it chill for a minute or so, allowing the frost to build up on the outside of the cup. You may want to stir the ice a bit if it’s melting unevenly, but do so very gently. You’re not making a Slurpee.
5 – The Garnish
Add the rest of your bourbon—about another ounce—then top off the cup with a final scoop of crushed ice, making a bit of a mound that extends above the rim. Cut a dense bush of fresh mint (use the top end of the sprig where the leaves are closest together) and garnish.
6 – The First Sip
There you have it, the classic cocktail of the Kentucky Derby and hot, humid southern summers. If you want the full experience, we recommend sipping from the rim of the cup with your nose firmly planted in the mint garnish, but a straw is acceptable, too. And after three or four, you’re probably a lot less likely to pour it all over yourself in the process.
This is part one of our four-part series on the Mint Julep. Don’t miss out on the next feature, coming soon from Bevvy Presents!