Nothing is as essential to a Kentucky Derby party as a killer mint julep (except maybe an over-the-top hat). The sweet, herbaceous cocktail is equal parts boozy, refreshing and simple, as the original is made with nothing but bourbon, mint and sugar. Traditionally served over crushed ice in a metal julep cup, this Southern libation is likely one you haven’t made outside of Derby season. In case you need a refresher on how to make an authentic one, we tapped Charles Joly, world-champion bartender, cofounder of Crafthouse Cocktails and the official mixologist of the Kentucky Derby from 2015 to 2018, to find out how to make a mint julep the *right* way.
How to Make a Mint Julep, According to the Former Official Mixologist of the Kentucky Derby
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When Was the Mint Julep Invented?
According to Travels of Four and a Half Years in the United States of America, an 1803 book written by John Davis, the mint julep was a cocktail steeped with mint that was imbibed in the morning by many Virginians. But the drink had already gained traction by then; in fact, there were multiple types of juleps popularized by the 18th century, as “julep” was more of a cocktail category for any spirit served over crushed ice, rather than a specific drink.
How Did the Mint Julep Become Associated with the Kentucky Derby?
The O.G. mint julep was likely made with cognac or brandy, but once France’s cognac trade slowed in the mid-1800s due to the phylloxera epidemic (when a particular aphid insect destroyed a great deal of the country’s vineyards), whiskey took its place in the cocktail. Over time, bourbon whiskey became most associated with the mint julep because it was the go-to for poor farmers who couldn’t afford imported spirits, like rum.
By the late 1930s, the cocktail was declared the official drink of the Kentucky Derby and started being served in souvenir julep cups. Experts say that the julep cup was first used as a horse racing trophy back in 1816, reflective of the drink’s historic association with the sport. Today, nearly 120,000 mint juleps are sold at the racetrack for the Kentucky Derby (that requires about 10,000 bottles of bourbon and 1,000 pounds of fresh mint!).
5 Tips for Making a Mint Julep
A few key factors can take a mint julep from basic to “another round, please.” Keep these expert tips in mind when you’re making one at home:
- Use quality bourbon. It’s the only liquid ingredient, so go with a brand you’ll actually enjoy sipping. We’re fans of Bulleit Bourbon and Woodford Reserve. (Using a higher-proof bourbon will also keep the ice from melting as quickly.)
- Be careful with the fresh mint. “When you muddle your mint leaves, gently press and turn the muddler—don’t shred your mint,” advises Joly. “You only want to release the sweet oils from the leaves.”
- “Feel free to use granulated sugar or simple syrup,” says Joly. “The exact ratio of syrup to bourbon is up to your taste. I like to use an overproof bourbon and let the ice melt to open up the cocktail.”
- You could use regular ice cubes—but it wouldn’t be the same. “The julep is meant to be a slow sipper on a hot day,” explains Joly. “Crushed ice is important, as the drink isn’t diluted at all, otherwise, before serving. It also gives the sides of the julep cup that wonderful frost.”
- Kids at the Derby party? Make them virgin mint juleps by substituting the bourbon with ginger ale, lemonade, iced tea or sparkling water and lemon juice.
Luckily, you only need a few basic components to make a top-tier mint julep. Read on for Joly’s personal recipe. (Note: If you don’t have a julep cup, use a rocks glass, or even the small end of a two-piece cocktail shaker. You’ll need a muddler and ideally a bar spoon, too.)
- 1 bunch mint
- ½ ounce simple syrup (or more to taste)
- 2½ ounces high-proof bourbon
- Crushed ice
Prepare the Mint
1. Wash and pat the mint dry. Strip the leaves from the lower part of the stems so all the sprigs have the top bouquet of leaves intact. Save the loose leaves for muddling.
2. Take the stems with the bouquets attached and submerge them upside-down in ice water for 10 to 20 minutes. If you’re just making a few cocktails for you and your roommates, feel free to skip this part. But if you’re having guests, this step ensures that the mint will be bright and perky when served, rather than droopy and wilted.
3. Remove the mint bouquets and pat them dry. Cut the stems at an angle and place them cut side-down in a glass of room temperature water. If you’re preparing the mint a day ahead, loosely cover the glass with plastic wrap and store it in the fridge.
Make the Mint Julep
1. Place eight to ten loose mint leaves into the julep cup or glass. Pour in the simple syrup and muddle them together gently.
2. Add the bourbon. Add some crushed ice and stir with a bar spoon.
3. Top with more ice (Joly says not to be shy—the cocktail needs dilution.) Spank your reserved mint bouquet to release its oils and nestle it into the julep cup or glass to garnish.
Recipes to Serve with Mint Juleps
No Kentucky Derby viewing party is complete without some Southern-inspired fare. Here are a few of our favorite ideas to serve your guests:
Taryn Pire is PureWow’s associate food editor. A former bartender and barista, she’s been writing about all things delicious since 2016, developing recipes, reviewing restaurants and investigating food trends at Food52, New Jersey Family Magazine and Taste Talks. When she isn’t testing TikTok’s latest viral recipe, she’s having popcorn for dinner and posting about it on Instagram @cookingwithpire.