What Exactly Is A Mint Julep? And Why Should I Be Drinking It All Year Long?

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While I have never been the biggest fan of horseracing, I always look forward to The Kentucky Derby. It is certainly an exciting two minutes of sport (especially if you have some cash riding on a potential winner) and I have attended a couple of Derbys, because I love big events and have always had a great time. The main reason I enjoy when the Kentucky Derby comes around, however, is that it marks the time when bars and restaurants start paying attention to one of my all-time favorite mixed drinks, the mint julep.

Juleps don't have to be made with bourbon...but that is our favorite way

Juleps are a family of drinks that combine mint, sugar and crushed ice with pretty much whichever spirit you choose. As time has passed, however, bourbon has stepped in as the spirit that is most often used in the mint julep. Fittingly enough, given that the julep it is a mixed drink that was popularized in the South. Yet the original recipes were often made with rum or cognac, and if you reference Jerry Thomas's How To Mix Drinks, the first cocktail book ever published, there are several recipes for different types of juleps. His mint julep, for example, is made with cognac and a dash of Jamaican rum (I recommend trying this version).

Juleps have a history

The mint julep's first mention in print is in London in 1803 by a writer named John Davis. He described it as "a dram of spirituous liquor that has mint steeped in it, taken by Virginians of a morning." Coincidentally, the first written mention of the word "cocktail" in the U.S. was also in 1803.

According to Thomas, London adopted the trend of drinking juleps. In his 1862 book, he writes, "It was introduced into England by Captain Marryatt, where it is now quite a favorite." Marryatt had discovered it on his trips to the South and brought this classic American drink back with him to share with his friends and so began the journey of how the Julep became an international phenomena. Thank you, America!

Making a julep is a ritual

The mint julep is one of those great drinks that has its own serving ritual. It is also one of the most refreshing ways to drink America's favorite homemade spirit, bourbon. While the word "julep" is a French derivative of the Arabic word "julab," which was an old medicinal drink of rose petals and water, little is known of how it developed into the potent cocktail that gets sipped across the thousands of Derby parties that will happen throughout the U.S. this Saturday (May 4).

The ritual of mixing a julep is all about ensuring you extract the right amount of oils from the mint by gently muddling it with the sugar before adding crushed ice. After this, you should pull the mint and sugar through the ice before adding bourbon. The key to making the drink look appealing is adding more crushed ice to top it off and using it as a vehicle to decorate with garnishes. Always make sure the mint for the garnish is the freshest you have and keep in mind that you do not have to limit yourself to using mint — you can add berries and other fruits, should you be feeling garish.

Not many drinks have their own cup, but juleps do...

There is no better way to serve a mint julep than in a julep cup. The crushed ice glistens from the top, which highlights the rich green color of the mint, and the chill of the ice frosts the sliver or pewter. It is only when you sip the drink that you are reminded that the mint julep is not one to mess with. The undisputed star of the drink is the bourbon, which has merely been decorated and seasoned with the mint and sugar to make it more approachable on those hot Southern days.

...And now the mint julep has its very own sporting event

The mint julep became the official drink of the Kentucky Derby in 1938 and this has certainly helped keep attention on the classic mixed drink, which pre-dates the cocktail. This weekend, an estimated 120,000 mint juleps will be served in commemorative cups at the legendary racetrack at Churchill Downs — and countless more will be enjoyed as everyone gathers at Derby parties around the country. While I totally approve of this tradition, I encourage everyone to remember that juleps are not just for Derby Day and are actually one of the most versatile drinks out there — enjoyable on both hot summer days and cold winter nights. Long live the julep!

And now, some julep recipes:

Classic Mint Julep

By Dushan Zaric (Employees Only, New York)

2 ounces Maker's Mark

1 brown sugar cube

1 white sugar cube

3 dashes of Angostura bitters

1 dash of Peychaud's bitters

Splash of soda

Crush the sugar with the bitters and soda in the bottom of a julep cup. Add a handful of fresh clean mint leaves (no stalks). Using a muddle, gently tap the mint for about 20 seconds for the leaves to release essence (please do not turn into something that resembles a pesto). Fill cup with crushed ice and add your bourbon. Using a bar spoon, blend and stir – the ice will dilute – top with more crushed ice and crown with a big mint garnish.

Seasonal Julep

By Naren Young (Saxon + Parole, New York)

2 ounces Larceny bourbon

½ ounces Clear Creek kirschwasser

½ ounces cherry bounce

½ ounces mint syrup

5 dashes of Dale DeGroff's pimento bitters

Build into a julep cup, add 1/2 crushed ice and stir. Fill to overflowing with more crushed ice. Garnish with a large mint sprig and/or a fresh cherry.

Grapefruit Julep

By Dale DeGroff (reprinted from The Essential Cocktail)

2 mint sprigs

1/2 ounce freshly squeezed lime juice

1/2 ounce honey syrup

1/2 ounce agave syrup

1 1/2 ounces Finlandia grapefruit vodka

1 1/2 ounces freshly squeezed grapefruit juice

1 ounce Pom Wonderful pomegranate juice

In the bottom of a mixing glass, bruise one of the mint leaves with the lime juice, honey syrup and agave. Add the vodka, grapefruit juice, pomegranate juice and ice, and shake well. Strain into a highball glass filled with crushed ice and stir to frost as you would a mint julep. Garnish with the remaining sprig of mint.

The Julepito

By Neal Bodenheimer (CURE, New Orleans)

1 1/2 ounces Bodegas Hidalgo La Gitana "En Rama" unfiltered Manzanilla Sherry

1/2 ounce Alipus San Andres Mezcal

1/2 ounce simple (1:1)

12 mint leaves

2 mint tops

10 drops Bittercube Orange Bitters

Lightly press the mint leaves in a julep cup. Add all liquid ingredients (only 5 drops of bitters) and stir. Add crushed ice and stir again. Add more crushed and stir more. Press mint tops to release oils and garnish. Add remaining 5 drops of orange bitters atop the drink's crushed ice mound.

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