Cocktail Club

Here’s how to make the official drink of the Kentucky Derby

Toast to a better year ahead with a classic mint julep.

A bartender, wearing personal protective equipment, prepares mint juleps at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky., during the Kentucky Oaks, on Sept. 4, 2020, the day before the Kentucky Derby. Christian Hansen/The New York Times

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Among the sea of seersucker suits and elaborate hats, the mint julep rises to the occasion year after year at the Kentucky Derby. Since 1939, the mint julep has been the official drink of the derby, with over 120,000 cocktails sold in a two-day span – that’s a lot of cocktails.

The term “julep” comes from the Arabic word “julab” which was a rose petal and water beverage that was ingested with the belief that the quality of ones life would improve. Originally concocted for medicinal purposes, the combination of spirit, sugar, and mint was meant to soothe the stomach. The first documentation of the mint julep was in 1803, where we know that along with a coffee, southern farmers would start their day off with a julep. At this point in time, it is not clear if bourbon was the spirit of choice. Historians believe that the main ingredient of the julep was primarily based on the income and social class of the drinkers. Farmers were able to afford bourbon but not imported spirits like brandy or rum.

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And then the mint julep we know today started to gain popularity. Henry Clay, a senator from Kentucky brought the drink to Washington D.C. His spirit of choice? Kentucky bourbon. The popularity of Clay’s version made bourbon the staple ingredient for a mint julep.

The evolution of a farmer’s drink to craft cocktail is not only accredited to Clay but partially from the glassware and ice itself. Do you have a pewter julep cup? Nice. What about a frosted pewter julep cup piled high with crushed ice? Fancy. Those with a higher social status and money were able to afford the more elaborate julep cups and the fancy crushed ice. It became a status symbol among the elite.

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Those elite would head over to Churchill Downs and order mint juleps to watch the race. The very popular mint julep became even more popular when racetrack managers noticed that guests were stealing the glassware as souvenirs. Today, $15 will get you a cocktail and a souvenir cup to go home with.

The combination of bourbon, mint, sugar, and crushed ice has led to a frenzy way beyond stomach aches. I mean, you can’t go to the Kentucky Derby and not get a mint julep. It’s about the celebration, the tradition, the showmanship.

While we might have missed Derby Day last year, a sense of normalcy is coming back and to that we raise our julep cups (you know it has to be an iconic cocktail if it has its own glassware) and toast to a better year ahead.

What you’ll need

Mint Julep

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2 oz. bourbon
¾ oz. simple syrup
Handful of mint leaves
Place mint leaves in the bottom of the glass, add simple syrup

1. Gently press mint leaves into the simple syrup – there is no need to muddle, it makes the mint taste bitter. Lightly pressing the mint allows for the oils to be expressed without adding bitterness.
2. Add bourbon and lightly stir.
3. Add crushed ice and stir gently with a spoon.
4. Add more crushed ice to fill the julep cup and stir again.
5. Garnish with mint sprig crown.


Join our next virtual cocktail class

Join us Thursday, April 29 at 7 p.m. with host Jackson Cannon and his special guest, Alex Larochelle, bar manager at Six West in South Boston. This week they’ll be making cocktails with bourbon whiskey in anticipation of the 147th running of the Kentucky Derby, catching up about the Boston restaurant and bar scene, and sharing tips the pros use to make great drinks at home. On deck are the ultra-classic mint julep and an evocative newcomer, The Kentucky Spire. Everything you’ll need is listed here.

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