It’s Kentucky Derby time! Next Saturday marks the 138th run for the roses at Churchill Down in Louisville, Kentucky. I’ll be fortunate enough to be there for my first Derby. Hopefully it will be the first of many.
Derby week is always right about the time spring hits its stride. That means it’s time to usher in warmer weather cocktails to cool those hot afternoons. I love that bartenders and mixologists are pushing the noble craft forward, but I’m also a purist. I don’t believe you can top a properly prepared classic cocktail made with great whiskey. As I’ve stated numerous times, the mint julep is my favorite of them all.
Scan the internet and you’ll find countless articles and blog posts on the mint julep. Doing some research of my own I ran across articles claiming that Louisville, KY locals rarely drink mint juleps except for Derby week. I sure as hell hope that isn’t true! Last week a highly regarded whiskey writer called the Mint Julep a “special occasion drink”. I certainly don’t believe that’s true, but if it is, then it’s a personal mission of mine to change that perception.
See, in my opinion, mint juleps are for drinking whenever the mood strikes you. Much like a great bottle of wine can turn a humble dinner into a great meal, a mint julep does the same for any hot afternoon. Mint juleps really do make life better. That’s not too dramatic I promise. If you have never brought a frosted julep cup to your nose, inhaled its sweet, intoxicating mint and spirit aroma, and then felt your whole body cool as the elixer slid down the back of your throat, then you don’t know what you are missing. And we need to fix that pronto!
So what do you need to know about the Mint Julep’s history? Well for starters it’s like anything else. We always want to trace something back to a single origin, but history is messier than that. What seems most consistent is the term “julep” likely comes from the Persian word “julab”, which is literally a mixture of rose infused water. A broader definition might be simply that of botanicals and water.
At some point, the julep reference began to refer to medicinal concoctions of herbs and spirits. I am sure someone along the way pulled a Mary Poppins, adding some sugar or syrup to “make the medicine go down” in a much more delightful way. These juleps, or at least the idea of them, made their way to the Southern United States. Once here we applied our own bit of ingenuity to the cocktail (like we do with most things!).
Cognac or rum were the original spirits used to make a mint julep, but eventually Southerners substituted what they had – Bourbon and/or Rye Whiskey. We owe the cocktails solidification into the bar keep’s arsenal to Kentucky Senator, Henry Clay. Clay introduced the mint julep to bars in Washington D.C. some time in the early 1800’s. The rest is history.
I like history, but I like talking whiskey and cocktails more. That’s why this week I’ll be breaking down each component in the classic Mint Julep, and telling you not only what I recommend using to make one properly, but also why each ingredient and technique is so important. By Wednesday or Thursday you’ll be primed and ready for Saturday’s Kentucky Derby, but most importantly for those ordinary hot afternoons.
Let’s make some juleps!