The Mint Julep and the Kentucky Derby

Your cocktail calendar entry for: May
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It’s time for a Mint Julep. As you are doubtless aware the coming Saturday, May 1, is the first in May and that makes it Derby Day.  You know, the horse race at Churchill Downs, the (in)famous Kentucky Derby.  This is one of those infrequent occasions for The Drunkard’s Almanac where we don’t need to ponder what will be named Drink of the Day.  The Mint Julep and the Kentucky Derby have been a couple since 1938.

But before we describe the how-to of making your mint juleps we’ll want to spend a moment on the Kentucky Derby itself and the whole concept of juleps.

The Kentucky Derby

When it comes to the Kentucky Derby it’s a horse race in Louisville, Kentucky.  You already know how horse races work so we’ll put that aspect aside.  It’s also a drunken bacchanal of epic proportions.  Fortunately, one of the great drunks in American literature and journalism, Hunter S. Thompson, was originally from Louisville.  In 1970 he was sent by the long-defunct Scanlan’s Monthly to cover the Derby.  The result was a seminal article, The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved.   Strongly recommended reading.

His article was less about the race than the celebration and depravity that surrounds the event, so it’s applicable to our purposes.  This piece was the genesis of what became known as “gonzo journalism,” a story written without any claims of objectivity, usually in the first person, with a blurry line between reality, colorful exaggeration, and the thoughts of the writer.  Importantly for us, Thompson aptly describes drinking at the derby.  Here’s what you need to know:

“Now, looking down from the press box, I pointed to the huge grassy meadow enclosed by the track.  “That whole thing,” I said, “will be jammed with people; fifty thousand or so, and most of them staggering drunk.  It’s a fantastic scene—thousands of people fainting, crying, copulating, trampling each other and fighting with broken whiskey bottles.  We’ll have to spend some time out there, but it’s hard to move around, too many bodies.”

“Is it safe out there?” Will we ever come back?”

“Sure,” I said. “We’ll just have to be careful not to step on anybody’s stomach and start a fight.” I shrugged. “Hell, this clubhouse scene right below us will be almost as bad as the infield.  Thousands of raving, stumbling drunks, getting angrier and angrier as they lose more and more money.  By midafternoon they’ll be guzzling mint juleps with both hands and vomiting on each other between races.”

You’re probably also wondering about Kentucky Colonels, and he covers this as well.

“Steadman wanted to see some Kentucky Colonels, but he wasn’t sure what they looked like. I told him to go back to the clubhouse men’s rooms and look for men in white linen suits vomiting in the urinals.  “They’ll usually have large brown whiskey stains on the front of their suits,” I said. “But watch the shoes, that’s the tip-off.  Most of them manage to avoid vomiting on their own clothes, but they never miss their shoes.”

The Mint Julep

Having provided the mood setting for the Derby itself we turn to juleps.  The word “julep” itself has its origins in ancient Persian gulab, denoting a sweetened rosewater.  In the 17th century the poet John Milton described “spirits of balm and fragrant syrups” as juleps and by 1755 English dictionaries were defining the term as an “extemporaneous form of medicine, made of simple and compound water sweetened, serving for a vehicle to other forms not so convenient to take alone.”

By the early 19th century in the U.S. the practice of using sugar water and spearmint to render liquors more palatable began.  Once people crossed the Appalachians into Kentucky and started making bourbon the mint julep as we know it was born.  Mint juleps were consumed at any warm weather social gathering, including horse races.  Incredibly popular, the mint julep was to the 19th century what the martini was to the 20th century, the ambassador of American drinks.  That said, not all juleps include mint.  If you’re fresh out you might like to try the Overall Julep, which we feature for Kwanzaa.

Mint Julep

Mint Julep

While a metal julep cup is the traditional vessel meant to hold such a drink, and is exemplary at developing the trademark frost on its surface, you should not feel impeded if all you have is an ordinary glass.  Or, for that matter, some plastic cups, which may prove useful if you follow Hunter S. Thompson’s description and are drinking Mint Juleps out of both hands all afternoon on Derby Day.
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Equipment

  • julep cup

Ingredients
  

Instructions
 

  • Pack cup with crushed ice.
  • Add bourbon, distributing it across the surface of the dome.
  • Add simple syrup.
  • No stirring allowed!
  • Garnish with mint sprig after slapping between palms.
  • Your correspondent failed here, but ideally put your straw through the garnish to enjoy the mint fragrance with every sip.
  • Drink. Preferably one in each hand as described above.
  • Rinse and repeat.
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