The History of the Mint Julep

The 2015 Kentucky Derby begins on May 2nd and it is expected that somewhere between 80,000 and 120,000 Mint Juleps will be purchased over the weekend. The official drink of the event has an interesting history behind it.
The first origins are unknown for sure, but the word Julep is Persian for rose water. Some have used this meaning to trace it back to an old Arabic drink called a Julab, which was made with water and rose petals. People who drank this thought it would help to enhance the quality of their lives. As the drink travelled around the world, the medicinal benefits were often quoted. The first literary mention of the Mint Julep includes the use of it to cure sickness, and Southern Americans would drink one first thing in the morning to wake them up and protect themselves against malaria while working out on the fields.

From the Middle East, the drink was introduced to the Mediterranean where the rose petals were discarded in favour of more accessible mint leaves. After making an impact on Europe, the drink made its way over to Southern America, where the US Senator, Henry Clay of Kentucky, tasted it and then introduced it to friends at the Round Robin Bar in the Willard Hotel, Washington DC. It was in America that the bourbon was added, and so the popularity of the drink soared. In the 1862 edition of Bar-Tenders Guide: How to Mix Drinks, there are five different recipes for the cocktail, each with a different spirit. Although bourbon is the most widely used, other options include cognac, gin, brandy or whiskey.

It was traditionally served in silver or pewter cups and the drinker was to hold these specially adapted vessels by either the top or bottom edges so that a frost could form on the outside of the cup. To hold any other way meant that heat from the hand would transfer to the cup and so the frost could not form. In bars nowadays, the drink is more commonly served in highball or lowball glasses, but at the Kentucky Derby it is served in signature glasses for the event. The drink has been associated with the Derby since 1938, when it sold for just 75 cents, or a dollar if you wanted to keep the glass. It is no longer freshly made, but served as a pre-mix which does not do the original recipe justice. It is also rumoured that this version uses Kentucky Whiskey rather than bourbon.

Churchill Downs have attempted many gimmicks to increase the popularity of the drink. In 2006, they introduced premium Juleps. These were served in gold plated cups with silver straws and sold for $1,000. The world’s largest Julep was also created. It stood at 6 feet tall and could hold 206 gallons.

To make your own Mint Julep for Derby Day, see our recipe:

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