Some people, out of kindness or perhaps because they’re already drunk, will claim to love it, but others will say, “Um, that’s not at all what I was expecting,” and quietly set their glasses down and hope no one notices because you don’t want to offend the host.
I was born in Kentucky, and I always enjoyed Derby Week, but I tend to agree with an old newspaper man I worked with years ago who believed a mint julep is a terrible waste of good bourbon.
Juleps are a Southern thing, a concoction of bourbon, water, spearmint leaves and sugar. No one’s sure who invented it or when, but a Londoner who worked as a tutor on a Southern plantation wrote a book in 1803 and described the drink as “a dram of spirituous liquor that has mint steeped in it, taken by Virginians of a morning.”
I suspect people drank mint juleps at the first Kentucky Derby in 1875, but mint juleps didn’t really become a Derby tradition until Churchill Downs began selling souvenir mint julep glasses in 1938.
On paper, a mint julep sounds like it would work. You have bourbon, sugar, water and spearmint — not a bad ingredient in the bunch.
Mint juleps look good, too, when they’re done right (see above). You’re supposed to serve mint juleps in silver cups filled with crushed ice; you stir the drink quickly to frost the cup and garnish with a mint sprig.
It really is a handsome drink.
Juleps aren’t especially handsome in those sweaty souvenir glasses at the Derby, and some would argue they aren’t really juleps. By tradition, juleps are made of bourbon, but Churchill Downs has a contract with Early Times, which is technically a whisky, not a bourbon.
But a drink isn’t about the look. It’s about the taste, and this is where things fall apart.
Not enough sugar and water, and it packs a wallop you’re not expecting from a supposedly genteel drink. Too much sugar and water, and it’s too sweet. I suppose there’s a sweet spot, where the flavors are balanced just right, but I never bothered to find it.
People in Kentucky only drink mint juleps at the races. Once the Derby’s over, you’ll be hard pressed to find a mint julep anywhere in the commonwealth. There’s a reason Kroger doesn’t stock mint sprigs the rest of the year.
On Derby Day, if you really want to drink what the locals drink, have a sweet tea or a beer a glass of wine.
But if you’re wondering, here’s how to make a mint julep:
- 2 cups sugar
- 2 cups water
- 5 fresh mint sprigs for the syrup, plus extra for garnish
- crushed ice
- Boil the sugar and water together until the sugar dissolves
- Pour the syrup into a container with the mint sprigs and refrigerate overnight
- Fill a small cup with crushed ice
- Add a tablespoon of syrup and four tablespoons of bourbon and stir. Garnish with a fresh mint sprig