Beloved by politicians and poets, the mint julep is the only thing to drink as the Kentucky Derby approaches.
There are few beverages more storied than the Mint Julep. It has inspired songs, poems, and most notably, bad behavior from famous Southern writers.
Ernest Hemingway once had a tirade in France when served a bad julep, allegedly hurling his glass and exclaiming, “Doesn’t anyone in this godforsaken country know how to make a Mint Julep?” And Mississippi’s William Faulkner was known to jump behind the bar at Musso & Franks in Hollywood to make his own authentic version.
Courtesy of REX 1516
Today, the literary culture of the Mint Julep is still alive and well. Lou DiNunzio, bar manager at REX 1516 in Philadelphia, recites a poem as he prepares his juleps, revived thanks to legendary bartender Chris McMillan in New Orleans. The poem was published in the Lexington Herald in the 1880s. “Then comes the zenith of man’s pleasure,” it goes. “Then comes the Julep—the Mint Julep.”
“The Mint Julep wonderfully represents the beginning of American cocktails,” DiNunzio says. “The fact that it is still being made over two centuries later speaks volumes of its importance.”
Courtesy of Round Robin Bar
One of the most influential establishments to serve the Mint Julep is the Round Robin Bar in Washington D.C.’s Willard Intercontinental Hotel. It opened in 1847, and their signature drink became a popular beverage for the Washington elite when U.S. Senator Henry Clay famously shipped in a barrel of Kentucky Bourbon. The politician, known for bringing together the North and South, frequented the bar to imbibe juleps during his 40 years in government.
“Without a doubt, the Mint Julep is an iconic American cocktail,” Round Robin’s bartender of 30 years, Jim Hewes, explains. “It evokes an era of hospitality and geniality. It’s the most elegant, inviting and enticing cocktail, a light libation of extraordinary character.” Henry Clay’s version featured sour mash corn whiskey, distilled in Bourbon County, and the bar still follows his original recipe.
A string of U.S. politicians and presidents became known for loving this concoction. Teddy Roosevelt used the White House’s mint garden to make juleps to entice his cabinet members into a game of tennis. And the son of U.S. President Zachary Taylor was treated to a julep while serving near Charlottesville, Virginia, in 1862, reportedly commenting, “Ah! That Julep! Mars ne’er received such a tipple from the hands of Ganymede!”
Courtesy of The Silver Dollar
But nowhere is the julep more famous than at the Kentucky Derby. It became the official drink in 1938. Due to the immense volume of minty concoctions needed to keep race-goers happy (around 120,000), Old Forrester ready-to-serve bourbon is used at Churchill Downs.
“Kentucky and Louisville are associated with both the Derby and Mint Juleps,” explains Susie Hoyt, beverage director at The Silver Dollar in Louisville. The Silver Dollar’s Mint Julep is the real deal, made from scratch using Four Roses Single Barrel 100-proof whisky. “This is a great proof, because you need your bourbon to be able to stand up to the crushed ice and dilution,” she says.
Mint Juleps are a sentimental beverage. For Cedd Moses, the owner of Seven Grand, idyllic Virginia summers sipping the drink drove him to become a bar owner. “One of his earliest joys in life was serving juleps to his grandmother’s friends gathered on the porch,” recounts Tom Koerner, spirit guide for Seven Grand Whisky Bar in Austin, Texas. “Her insistence on letting the mint and sugar marry overnight, and how and when Mint Juleps should be enjoyed (quickly and never after you see the first firefly) stuck with Cedd.” Koerner draws from a huge library of 120 Kentucky straight bourbons to create the Seven Grand’s version.
Surprisingly, this most Southern of drinks has its origins in the Middle East, with the word “Julep” originating with the Arabic word “Gulab”, meaning “rosewater”. “Julep” came to refer to flavored syrup, and it appeared as a mint-only alcoholic beverage by the beginning of the 19th century, first made with rum, rye, or brandy.
Although it’s now mixed almost exclusively with whisky, the julep has regional variations. In Philadelphia Lou DiNunzio adds a twist, pouring Angostura bitters on top of the drink after the alcohol is added. “This changes the experience of the drink: every sip brings the bitters closer to the alcohol,” he says.
So what makes a great Mint Julep? Spirit, sugar, mint and ice are the basic ingredients.
So what makes a great Mint Julep? Spirit, sugar, mint and ice are the basic ingredients. According to Koerner, it comes down to balance of flavors. “A great Mint Julep is one where every component shows up and plays its part,” he says. “The mark of this is the ability of the fresh cracked, crushed, or even shaved ice to transition the rest of the ingredients into the pinnacle of refined adult slushies.”
For Round Robin’s bartender, it’s all about technique. He mixes the drink’s base by combining a teaspoon of sugar, mint leaves, an ounce of bourbon and a splash of sparkling water, gently stirred until a ‘tea’ forms. “By stirring you’re gently bruising the mint, aiding in the release of the mint oils,” Hewes explains. “But you have to be careful not to overdo it.”
However it’s made, worshippers of the julep will no doubt find themselves satiated imbibing the historic, most American of libations during the Derby. Says Koerner: “Americans practically created a national holiday involving the celebration and enjoyment of the Mint Julep… and some horse racing.”
Here are a few of our favorite places to get a Mint Julep fix, even if you haven’t made it to the races (or even Kentucky.)
THE SILVER DOLLAR, LOUISVILLE KENTUCKY
Whisky takes pride of place at this honky-tonk venue. Set in an old firehouse in an up-and-coming part of Louisville, it’s sure to be overrun during the Derby. The Silver Dollar makes their julep with fresh mint, Demerara syrup, and bourbon.
ROUND ROBIN BAR, WILLARD INTERCONTINENTAL, WASHINGTON, D.C.
The Round Robin Bar serves over 20,000 Mint Juleps each year in historic surroundings. The hotel has been the center of political, economic, and social activity for over 170 years, promoting great conversation around the circular bar.
REX 1516, PHILADELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIA
This distinguished Southern-style restaurant in Philadelphia takes pride of place amongst the great Mint Julep bars, in an attractive exposed-brick setting.
SEVEN GRAND WHISKY BAR, AUSTIN, TEXAS
Seven Grand is all about the whiskeys. Boasting its own whisky society, the bar, part of the 213 Hospitality Group, masters the Mint Julep.
OCEAN PRIME, PHOENIX, ARIZONA
For a Western take on the classic julep, Ocean Prime combines Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Bourbon, simple syrup, Disaronno amaretto liqueur, a few dashes of Angostura Bitter, and mint leaves.