What is a Mint Julep?

Bronwyn Harris

The mint julep is a cocktail, or mixed drink, likely invented in the Southern United States sometime during the 1900s. Ubiquitous in the American South, and similar to the mojito, the drink has been the traditional beverage of Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby for almost 100 years. Henry Clay introduced the mint julep to Washington D.C. and the America North. To many in the United States, the mint julep is a reminder of Southern gentility and hospitality.

Mint leaves.
Mint leaves.

There are many differing opinions about how to make a mint julep, but everyone will agree that fresh mint is fundamental. Also essential is good bourbon, Kentucky Whiskey being one of the favorites. In order to sweeten the mint julep, a simple syrup is used. This can be purchased, or made by boiling equal parts granulated sugar and water together. The simple syrup is poured into a container with sprigs of fresh mint which have been bruised, or pressed gently with the back of a spoon in order to release some of the fragrant mint oil. This mixture is refrigerated overnight.

A jigger is used to measure alcohol to make a mint julep.
A jigger is used to measure alcohol to make a mint julep.

When the juleps are to be served, a julep cup, generally made of silver or pewter, is filled with crushed ice. One tablespoon of the refrigerated mint syrup is poured into the cup, along with two ounces of bourbon. The drink is stirred rapidly, causing frost to form on the outside of the cup, served with a straw and garnished with a sprig of fresh mint. The leftover mint syrup can be kept in the refrigerator as long as the mint leaves are removed.

The mint julep has been the traditional beverage of the Kentucky Derby since 1938. Each year, more than 80,000 mint juleps are served during the Derby. In 2006, fifty custom-made mint juleps for $1000 US dollars (USD) each were sold at Churchill Downs, where the Kentucky Derby is held. Each of these drinks were made with imported mint from Morocco, sugar from the South Pacific, and ice imported from the Arctic Circle. They were served with silver straws in gold-plated cups, and were a fund-raiser for causes supporting retired race horses.

Mint juleps are also featured prominently in songs by artists from the American South. Ray Charles sang a song called One Mint Julep, and singer/songwriter Bobby Goldsboro mentions a woman who "sipped on a julep" in Summer The First Time. "You go to my head like the kicker in a julep or two," was a line in Louis Armstrong's song You Go To My Head.

A non-alcoholic version of the mint julep is available in New Orleans Square in Disneyland and Tokyo Disneyland. This kid-friendly drink is made of sugar, lime juice concentrate, soda water, creme de menthe syrup (not liqueur), and lemonade concentrate. It is garnished with maraschino cherries, lime slices, and mint leaves. Visitors to Disneyland can request the mint julep recipe at Disneyland's City Hall.

Mint juleps are particularly popular in the American South.
Mint juleps are particularly popular in the American South.

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