A mint julep is a classic cocktail that has become one of the symbols of the Kentucky Derby, largely because it has been the official drink of the race for nearly 100 years. The cocktail is made with bourbon, sugar and mint, and it comes in a silver cup that is packed full of crushed ice. The finished cocktail is not unlike a very adult sno-cone – but one with a real kick to it.
Juleps were originally made with a wide variety of spirits, including gin and brandy, but bourbon is what most of us associate with them because of the Kentucky Derby tradition. The drink is so simple that all the elements in it are equally important: the mint and ice make it cool and refreshing, the sugar takes the edge off the bourbon, while the bourbon provides a kick. It was served in peweter or silver julep cups, which have a foot at the bottom and a tall rim. These cups allowed the drinker to hold the cup from the very top or bottom while displaying the frosted sides of the cup. The julep was considered to be a drink that was considered to be a very refreshing option for the refined drinker when it came into popularity in the South, so there is little doubt that the julep cups were something of a status symbol.
As a bourbon fan, I always take the opportunity to treat myself to a julep on Derby Day, which is the first Saturday in May, but it’s an easy drink that offers a great way to cool down all summer long. The first step in making the drink is by muddling – or gently smashing – fresh mint leaves with a bit of sugar or sugar syrup. Use a muddle or the back of a wooden spoon to crush the mint leaves and release their oils. Add in some crushed ice and bourbon, then stir the drink until a frost forms on the outside of the glass. Once you master the technique, you can incorporate other fruits for a little variety.
You can buy the crushed ice, or simply make it by crushing it in a blender or smashing it with a rolling pin. If I’m making drinks for a crowd, I’ll crush lots of ice and keep it in a bowl in the freezer until I’m ready to use it. Once crushed, it’s easy to break it up with a spoon to scoop into a glass. Consider serving your juleps with another Derby-inspired dessert, such as my Mint Julep Pie or Mint Julep Sorbet.
12-16 mint leaves
3 tsp sugar (or 2 tsp simple syrup)
2 1/2 oz bourbon
In a rocks glass (or a silver julep glass, if you have one), muddle mint and sugar to release the oils in the mint and partially dissolve the sugar. Fill glass to the brim with crushed ice, then pour in bourbon. Stir until frost forms on the outside of the glass. Top with more crushed ice, garnish with mint.