Some love the Kentucky Derby for its thoroughbreds. Others love it for the big floppy hats. But the derby’s best tradition has to be its signature drink: the mint julep.
The quenching cocktail blends bourbon, mint, sugar, and water, served over heaps of crushed ice, in a signature silver or pewter cup.
The horse race itself might last only two minutes, but the audience affair with the julep lasts all afternoon. What other sporting event comes with its own dedicated cocktail? What glory it brings to bourbon!
The julep’s early roots were as a medicinal drink, to settle the stomach. As a cocktail, it blossomed in the American South in the late 1700s, with a decidedly elite air. In those days, not everyone had access to ice nor the silver or pewter cup in which a mint julep is served.
The unofficial drink of the South, the mint julep became the official drink of the Kentucky Derby in 1938. At the last race, more than 127,000 mint juleps were sold.
Some recipes allow for different whiskeys (like this one featuring Rebel Yell Ginger), and there’s a julep cousin called a brandy smash that partners brandy with mint. But bourbon’s the julep classic, and rightfully so.
Something magical takes place in the chemistry between fresh spearmint leaves and the aged intensity of a bourbon like Rebel Yell. The sweetness of the sugar helps the two flavors harmonize, for a drink that’s both refreshing and profound.
Part of the pleasure of sipping a mint julep revolves around the cup. Not only is there a tactile pleasure in the subtle cone shape and polished sterling or pewter materials, but metal is the best vehicle to showcase the frosty exterior that’s so desirable.
At the derby, patrons took to stealing the cups, so Churchill Downs issued cups for sale. Naturally, they became instantly collectible.