Yes, the Kentucky Derby has been postponed for now, but luckily, some of its festive traditions can continue. Even though it’ll be a little while before you can don a floppy hat and sip on a Mint Julep at the racetrack, there’s nothing stopping you from enjoying one on your back porch!
Here’s a little cocktail history to pair with your cold drink.
The Mint Julep Gets Its Start
Like almost all early cocktails, the Mint Julep was first recorded in 1784 as a cure for “sickness at the stomach, with frequent retching, and, at times, the difficulty of swallowing” — but its origin story goes back even further than that. In fact, the word “julep” derives from the Persian word for “rose water,” drunk in the early fifteenth century to mask the bitterness of medicine. Later, the rose petals would be replaced by indigenous mint.
It wasn’t until the early 1800s that the drink began to be consumed more frequently as a cocktail. First mentioned in print in 1803, one writer described the mint julep as a “dram of spirituous liquor that has mint in it, taken by Virginians in the morning.”
Thanks to former Kentucky senator Henry Clay, the Mint Julep gained prominence in Washington, D.C. in 1850. He first introduced the drink at the Round Robin Bar in the Willard Hotel and from there, the recipe hit the mainstream. Spurred along by popular culture references from the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald (The Great Gatsby, published 1924), Margaret Mitchell (Gone With The Wind, published 1936), and others, the Mint Julep soon became a symbol of sophisticated southern charm.
In 1983 the Mint Julep finally became the official drink of the Kentucky Derby — and has been ever since.
From Medicinal Syrup to Derby Delight
Following the conclusion of the 1938 Kentucky Derby, the staff noticed they were significantly short on glasses. They quickly realized that fans seeking souvenirs of their big day at the races were the culprits. By the next year, 1939, Churchill Downs had found the perfect solution.
Caterer Harry Stevens was commissioned to produce the first-ever commemorative Kentucky Derby glassware. And of course, the drink chosen to be served in this special glass was none other than the mint julep. The decision paid off, more than tripling drink sales at the track. In the early years, there were fewer than 100,000 commemorative glasses made. Today, more than 700,000 are made each year.
The Mint Julep has remained the traditional beverage of Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby for nearly a century. Every year, that tradition continues as almost 120,000 Mint Juleps are served over the two-day period of Kentucky Oaks and Kentucky Derby weekend at Churchill Downs.
According to the official website of the Kentucky Derby, that’s a feat that requires more than 10,000 bottles of Old Forester Mint Julep Ready-to-Serve Cocktail, along with 1,000 pounds of freshly harvested mint and 60,000 pounds of ice.
It’s fitting that the historic event concludes with the Winner’s Party where the Kentucky governor raises a toast to the victor with, you guessed it, a Mint Julep.
How the Mint Julep Has Changed What the World is Drinking
While the ingredients of the Mint Julep have varied over the years, a few key components have remained the same:
- First, the Mint Julep belongs to a category of cocktails called “smashes,” because its ingredients are smashed together. In the classic version of this cocktail, the mint is muddled with the other ingredients to enhance the flavor, essential oils, and natural juices of the herb.
- Second, as is tradition, Mint Juleps are always served in pewter cups. The intention is that the drinker holds the drink from either the top or the bottom, allowing the ice to frost the outside of the cup.
But this is where the consistencies end. Since its creation, the Mint Julep has gone through many iterations. For example, did you know that the cocktail was originally made with low-quality, high-proof rum? Or that President Roosevelt was known for adding a splash of brandy to his whiskey-based concoction? And harkening back to its earliest origins, some recipes still call for rose petals rather than mint. So while the classic version of this cocktail remains most popular, people today continue to create their own unique twists. In fact, this article suggests 13 different ways to spruce up your cocktail, including the addition of a variety of fruits, matcha, ginger, and sweet tea.
Of course, if you’re someone who’d like to stick to tradition in honor of Derby, the classic Mint Julep recipe is easy to recreate at home. All you need is mint, simple syrup (sugar water), Bourbon, and crushed ice. Enjoy!
Got an idea for the next big cocktail? The beverage development experts at Flavorman can help you bring it to life as your very own ready-to-drink beverage! Just fill out this web form, or give us a call at (502) 273-5214 to get started.