By Fred Minnick
The official drink of the Kentucky Derby, the mint julep is a simple cocktail with a fascinating history.
We first read about the mint julep in the 1803 journal, Travels of Four Years and a Half in the United States of America; author John Davis called it “a dram of spirituous liquor that has mint in it, taken by Virginians of a morning.” By liquor, he meant whiskey. Kentucky, once a part of Virginia, soon made the drink its own and frequently served it in silver cups.
The mint julep was served at the opening of Churchill Downs in 1875. In 1938 it was served in a souvenir glass and sold for 38 cents. According to racetrack lore, the glasses were so popular that they disappeared from the tables in the track’s dining rooms. Track management decided to charge patrons an extra 25 cents if they wanted to keep the glasses.
From 1938 through 1952, fewer than 100,000 Kentucky Derby glasses were produced each year, but in 1966 annual production grew to 250,000. For the 100th running of the race in 1974, 400,000 glasses were sold. These days, Churchill Downs sells more than half a million glasses during the race—but even in Kentucky it remains largely a Kentucky Derby tradition; mint juleps are not common on cocktail menus. Much like eggnog is a holiday drink, the mint julep is the drink of choice every first Saturday in May.
4 fresh mint sprigs
2-1/2 oz 94-proof or higher bourbon
1 tsp sugar
2 tsp water
Gently muddle leaves, not the stems. Add sugar and water in a Collins glass or your Sterling Silver Julep Cup. Fill with crushed ice. Add bourbon and garnish with sprigs of stemmed mint.