The History of Racing and the Mint Julep

Greg Horton, ReserveBar Spirits Contributor


As a cocktail, the origins of the Mint Julep can be traced back to the ancient world, and it is said to have become the official drink of the Kentucky Derby in 1939. Or perhaps it was simply the year before in 1938, when event organizers, having noticed that attendees were leaving Churchill Downs with the julep cups hidden in pockets and purses, started offering commemorative cups. This is a celebrated tradition that continues into the present day. The various histories cite both dates, and in what is surely a case of transposed numbers, one popular source even cites 1983.


A hand holding a Mint Julep cocktail

That the Mint Julep dates to the ancient world is uncontested, with all historians agreeing that it finds its beginnings in the ancient Sasanian Empire (a revived Persian Empire in late antiquity), where it was called “gulab.” The original version was a rosewater bath, and the ingredients would eventually be refined to an aromatic oil popular in trade throughout Asia by the 9th century AD. An echo of the ancient name still persists in Indian and Pakistani cuisine in the form of gulab jamun, a dessert with longstanding ubiquity throughout the Indian subcontinent.

The Latinized form of the word is “julapium,” which is where the modern form “julep” debuted, and it arrived in the U.S. in the 18th century, billed as a medicinal aid. That proto-julep was made with rum or Brandy, two spirits that guaranteed it was only affordable by the moneyed class. With the rise in foreign taxes placed on rum and Brandy, American farmer-distillers soon turned to domestic spirits like gin and whiskey to make the elixir, the popularity of which began in Virginia before migrating west to Kentucky.

An early form of the julep made with gin included powdered sugar sprinkled on the top of the cocktail, forming a white dusting on the mint sprigs that had taken the place of rosewater as the curative’s primary aromatic element. The abundance of sugar from the Caribbean also nudged the syrup’s composition toward a New World cocktail, leaving behind all the elements of the Persian original. When it finally landed in Kentucky, distillers, working with the materials provided by the state’s oak forests, limestone water, and abundant corn, crafted the modern Mint Julep with bourbon; the “glassware” would come later.


Jockey riding a horse at the Kentucky Derby

When Colonel Meriwether Lewis Clark, Jr. – grandson of the famous explorer William Clark – founded the Kentucky Derby in 1875, the Mint Julep was already common around Kentucky. Clark himself would standardize the cocktail and establish it as one of the Derby’s annual traditions. According to the late Derby historian Jim Bolus, the Mint Julep’s official place in Derby events began in 1876. Bill Doolittle paraphrased Bolus in the Louisville Voice-Tribune:

“According to Bolus, Clark threw a fabulous party on the eve of the Derby in his quarters at the racetrack (which wasn’t yet called Churchill Downs, by the way). Clark’s special guest of honor was the Polish Countess Helena Modjeska and her husband, Count Bozenta. The Countess was a celebrated actress in Europe and was on tour that year in the United States (and decided to stay). As is done today, Clark courted the Countess to get her to attend the Kentucky Derby, believing such a famous and talented personage would add glamour to the race, which it did… At the banquet, Clark supervised the mixing of a giant bourbon julep in a large punch bowl. He garnished the concoction with sprigs of mint, proposed a toast and set the bowl in front of the Countess with a flourish.”

The story qualifies as Derby lore because the Countess assumed the punch-bowl-sized drink was for her and, upon tasting it, asked Clark to make another “for the Count.” At that time, glass cups were the norm, and the now famous julep cup – made of pewter – wouldn’t make an appearance until the 1930s. As the drink increased in popularity, thanks both to the Kentucky Derby and the celebration of “Julep Month” in Kentucky bars and restaurants leading up to the event, its profile has also increased in U.S. popular culture.

Luminaries in music, film, and literature have loved (and hated) the Mint Julep, including the cocktail in songs (Ray Charles) and books (F. Scott Fitzgerald), as well as infamous “Americans abroad” behavior, like the time Ernest Hemingway purportedly smashed a glass in a French bar because the drink was made incorrectly. Given Hemingway’s propensity toward personalized cocktails – e.g., the eponymous daiquiri – it’s unknown what he thought was the proper build.


Woodford Reserve and Mint Julep cocktail

Woodford Reserve became the official bourbon of the Kentucky Derby in 1999, which is an honor in itself considering the first bottling was released just a handful of years prior. Their signature bourbon, famous for its beauty and consistency – cocoa, citrus, orange zest, and caramel – makes for a compelling base for the mint julep, as it adds layers of complexity and interesting secondary notes to a very simple build. In fact, Woodford Reserve has standardized a recipe they recommend to craft the perfect mint julep every time. If you want to go a step further in your celebrations, they also have a limited-edition Derby bottle they have released every year since 1999.

Their official build is two ounces of Woodford Reserve, a half-ounce of their Mint Julep cocktail syrup, fresh mint leaves and crushed ice – the preferred ice since the 1930s when ice was chipped off large blocks stored in cold boxes or sheds.

As we prepare for another run of the Kentucky Derby, now is the time to find the most creative of hats, break out the seersucker, and master the Mint Julep.

Crafted Carefully. Drink Responsibly.

Woodford Reserve Kentucky Straight Whiskey, 43.2%-45.2% Alc. by Vol., The Woodford Reserve Distillery, Versailles, KY. Woodford Reserve is a registered trademark. ©2021 Brown-Forman.


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