A Brief History of the Kentucky Derby’s Mint Julep

As we gear up for Derby Day on May 5, we’re revisiting the history of the mint julep, the official drink of the Kentucky Derby. We've also included a few of our favorite julep recipes for you to serve on race day!

A Hudson Mint Julep. Reprinted from Sprits and Cocktails of Upstate New York by Don Cazentre courtesy of the author (pg. 19, The History Press, 2017).

A Hudson Mint Julep. Reprinted from Sprits and Cocktails of Upstate New York by Don Cazentre courtesy of the author (pg. 19, The History Press, 2017).
The Possible Arabian Roots of an American Classic
While we often associate the mint julep with one of America’s biggest horse races, it’s less often that we think about the origins of the drink. In fact, there’s actually a hefty bit of debate over where the drink actually came from. It’s believed by many that the origins of the modern mint julep can perhaps be traced back to the Ancient Arabian world, where a variation on the mint julep was most likely made with rose petals and water. This Arabic drink, called julab, eventually spread to the Mediterranean, where indigenous mint replaced the former rose petals. However, many historians also cite that the word julep has been used for centuries to describe any sugary, mixed drink that was used to take with medicine. Julep drinks were popular throughout Europe, making it more likely that the julep as we know it today came from these medicinal beverages.
Wherever the drink truly hails from, a mint julep today contains mint, sugar, and bourbon stirred with crushed ice. Historians widely agree they most likely became popular in colonial Virginia during the 18th century. These early drinks are said to have been used by farmers as restoratives, giving them energy before they went to work in the fields. However, the first official mention of a mint julep in the US wasn’t until 1803, when it was described as a “dram of spirituous liquor that has mint in it, taken by Virginians in the morning” by Englishman John Davis in his Travels of Four Years and a Half in the United States of America.
From Virginia, the drink then spread to Washington D.C. in 1850 via Henry Clay, who’s recipe for the cocktail is purportedly still used at the Round Robin Bar in the Willard Hotel. After its initial branch outwards from Virginia, the drink was mixed with several different spirits, even including gin in some areas. However, bourbon became the liquor of choice after the drink arrived west in Kentucky as bourbon production increased, creating the classic recipe we recognize today.

A Maryland Mint Julep. Reprinted from Forgotten Maryland Cocktails by Gregory Priebe & Nicole Priebe (pg. 98, The History Press, 2015).

The Mint Julep at the Derby
The use of Kentucky Bourbon in mint juleps quickly drew the attention of locals, and it was not long before the cocktail arrived at Churchill Downs. While official promotion of the drink at the Derby did not begin until 1938, it became a staple of the racetrack as early as the 1820s, when jockeys were gifted sterling silver julep cups as trophies a half-century prior to the first Kentucky Derby. The first “record” of the mint julep at the Derby was in 1877, when (as legend as has it), Polish actress Helena Modjeska was passed a large mint julep meant for sharing. Modjeska allegedly enjoyed the drink so much that she kept the large drink for herself, and ordered another one afterwards. Although there was no official evidence to confirm this Derby legend, the drink quickly became an engrained Derby tradition as a result of the rumor.

Despite its increasing popularity at the Derby, the mint julep’s status as the official Kentucky Derby drink was also delayed by the Prohibition era of 1920 – 1933. Journalists and Derby attendees alike mourned the absence of their favorite drink at the event during this era. After the federal ban on alcohol was lifted, the mint julep returned to its former popularity at the race. However, the promotion of the drink did not begin until racetrack managers realized that attendees were stealing the cups that mint juleps were typically served in. To capitalize on this discovery and recoup costs, the mint julep was named the Derby’s official drink, and the cups were marketed as souvenirs for the event.
Today, the mint julep is a central element of the yearly Derby proceedings, with the governor of Kentucky toasting the race winner with a sterling silver julep cup. It’s estimated that the Derby serves over 100,000 of the drinks at the yearly event. Interestingly enough, however, the mint juleps made at the Kentucky Derby prior to 2015 were not made with the traditional recipe. Rather than use Kentucky Bourbon, the Derby supported a brand of liquor that was technically a type of Kentucky whiskey, as the liquor was aged in used (rather than new and charred) oak barrels. Since 2015, the Derby has returned to using the traditional Kentucky Bourbon within its mint juleps.
Our Best Mint Julep Recipes
If you’re interested in trying your hand at making your own mint julep this Derby day, there are many variations you can make to spice up the classic recipe. The Hudson Mint Julep from Sprints and Cocktails of Upstate New York features a recipe which uses a previously prepared mint syrup (as opposed to freshly mixing sugar into the drink) and ginger bitters, adding a slight bite to the drink.

The Hudson Mint Julep. Reprinted from Sprits and Cocktails of Upstate New York by Don Cazentre courtesy of the author (pg. 19, The History Press, 2017).
If you’d like to sample a slightly more traditional recipe, the Maryland Mint Julep (as seen in Forgotten Maryland Cocktails) includes a recipe similar to the whiskey-based Derby recipe. Using the rye whiskey typical of Maryland with sugar, mint, and water, the recipe is a simple and refreshing take on the classic mint julep.

The Maryland Mint Julep. Reprinted from Forgotten Maryland Cocktails by Gregory Priebe & Nicole Priebe (pg. 95, The History Press, 2015).

To see more about the recipes featured in this post, check out these cocktail titles:
https://www.arcadiapublishing.com/Products/9781467137003  https://www.arcadiapublishing.com/Products/9781626198562
If you’d like to know more about classic American cocktails, take a look at our books on state spirits and drinks.
Will you be making a mint julep for yourself this Derby day? What’s your favorite recipe to use? Let us know in the comments below!