It’s Mint Julep Time!

In honor of the Kentucky Derby this weekend, May 6, mix up the event’s signature drink—plus delve into some fun facts about this cocktail and the race
Mint Julep

Brent Hofacker/Adobe

If you want to get into the spirit of the “most exciting two minutes in sports” this weekend, mix up a Mint Julep (and perhaps don your flashiest hat) in honor of the Kentucky Derby, which is taking place on May 6.

The Kentucky Derby has been held every year at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky, since the inaugural running on May 17, 1875—the first day of horse racing at the track then known as the Louisville Jockey Club. The race has been held on the first Saturday in May on 91 occasions. A 73-year streak from 1946 to 2019 was broken in 2020 when the Kentucky Derby was delayed until Sept. 5, 2020, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Each year, almost 120,000 Mint Juleps are served over the two-day period of Kentucky Oaks and Kentucky Derby weekend at Churchill Downs Racetrack. That’s a feat that requires more than 10,000 bottles of Old Forester Mint Julep Ready-to-Serve Cocktail, 1,000 pounds of freshly harvested mint, and 60,000 pounds of ice, according to information on the official Kentucky Derby site.

With the perfect balance of sweet mint and smooth bourbon, the Mint Julep is a refreshing drink on a hot day. But it wasn’t always this mix. Like many cocktails, the origins are a bit murky, but its name derives from the Arabic word “julab,” meaning “rosewater,” according to Simon Difford in his book “Cocktails: The Bartender’s Bible.” At some point when a version of this creation made its way stateside from Europe, rose petals were swapped for the native mint plant, resulting in today’s iconic drink. The first known written reference to a cocktail-style julep was by a Virginia man in 1787. At the time it may have been made with rum, brandy, or whiskey, according to Difford. But by 1900, whiskey had become the preferred base spirit. Today, the cocktail as we know it is associated most famously with the Kentucky Derby, which named it the official drink of the event in 1938.

And what about the hats?

While many people attend or watch the televised races to see the horses, perhaps just as many people are checking out the hats and fashion. Part Southern tradition and part spectacle, the Kentucky Derby hat parade is what makes the race a great people-watching event.

The long-established fashion was started with Col. Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr.’s vision for the Derby as an event that the high-class would attend, making it similar to European-style racing events, which mandated full morning dress for men and women, according to the event’s website. For the first running of the Kentucky Derby, he had well-heeled women recruit his target clientele to attend the race. The event quickly became just as much about the fashion as the racing and an opportunity to show off the latest in spring fashion—women were known to coordinate their hats, dresses, bags, shoes, and even parasols. The extravagant hats that have become associated with the event came around in the 1960s, when the televised broadcast gave these fashion-conscious folks a reason to stand out. The hats became larger, brighter, and more extravagant.

So, you see the Kentucky Derby is about much more than a horse race. In honor of the occasion or as a celebration of spring, don your most stylish hat, and mix up a Mint Julep. From the Kentucky Derby to a porch near you, a Mint Julep is also always a refreshing cocktail choice throughout the warm weather ahead. And keep in mind a little horse-racing jargon: A “mudder” is a horse that prefers muddy or sloppy track conditions, and you’ll be “muddling” the mint in this drink! Cheers!

Mint Julep

Makes 1

9 to 12 mint leaves, plus a sprig for garnish
½ ounce sugar syrup (simple syrup)
2½-3 ounces bourbon whiskey

Lightly muddle the mint leaves and sugar syrup in the bottom of a Julep cup or highball glass. Add the bourbon and stir. Add some crushed ice and stir about 30 seconds. Garnish with a mint spring.

• It is important to only lightly muddle rather than crush the mint leaves, which can release bitter inner juices. Also discard the stems, which are bitter.
• For a variation, add a few dashes of Angostura aromatic bitters.
• If you prefer rum over bourbon, try a Mojito, which is a similar minty lime cocktail—your secret will be safe with us.

Mary Subialka is the editor of Real Food and Drinks magazines, covering the flavorful world of food, wine, and spirits. She rarely meets a chicken she doesn’t like, and hopes that her son, who used to eat beets and Indian food as a preschooler, will one day again think of real food as more than something you need to eat before dessert and be inspired by his younger brother, who is now into trying new foods.