Today’s post has a soundtrack: Ray Charles’ cover of the Clovers’ “One Mint Julep.” Play the embedded video, then scroll down and keep reading.
Saturday is the Kentucky Derby, and at Churchill Downs in Louisville and Derby parties everywhere, people will try a mint julep because that’s what you’re supposed to drink on Derby Day.
Some people, out of kindness or maybe because they’re drunk, will say to love it, but others won’t, and they’ll quietly set down their glasses and ignore them the rest of the afternoon.
I was born in Kentucky, and, living in Lexington, I always enjoyed the traditions surrounding the Derby, but I tend to agree with an old newspaper man I knew 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 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. 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 purists would argue the things at Churchill Downs 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. Bourbon must be aged in new barrels, but Early Times is aged in used barrels. It may be a small distinction, but these things matter in Kentucky.
But a drink isn’t about the look. It’s about the taste, and this is where things fall apart.
Mint juleps aren’t awful. Once you find the sweet spot where the ingredients are balanced just right, they’re pretty good, but finding that sweet spot can be tricky. 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.
Here’s something else to consider: 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. In Kentucky, you know it’s spring because Kroger starts stocking fresh mint sprigs.
On Derby Day, if you really want to drink what the locals drink, have a sweet tea or a beer or 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