Each year, nearly 120,000 mint juleps are served over Kentucky Derby weekend at Churchill Downs Racetrack. If you’re planning a celebration of your own, you’ll need two things: an amazing hat and a delicious mint julep cocktail.
However your chapeau issues resolve themselves, we have you covered on the drinks front. We talked to expert mixologists all over the country — including a few in Kentucky, of course — for this definitive guide to making a perfect mint julep.
The backstory of the classic cocktail
There’s a lot of history in this drink, and many mixologists take it very seriously. “My philosophy is to create a cocktail that is a true representation of what Henry Clay presented at Washington, D.C.’s Round Robin Bar in the 1800s,” said Matt Sayer, assistant general manager and sommelier at the Willcox Hotel in Aiken, South Carolina. “Anyone can throw some ingredients in a cup and call it a day, but the secret to this drink is in the details.”
“The first julep was not the mint-sugar-bourbon concoction often presented today as the definitive julep,” said Alba Huerta, owner of Houston’s aptly named Julep, which has five juleps on its cocktail menu. “The earliest juleps, which were mixed in the late 1700s, could include pretty much any spirit. The 1860s ‘Bartender’s Guide’ stated that the true Southern julep was mint, sugar, cognac and peach brandy.”
“But a cocktail of this kind was only for the very rich. On the other hand, bourbon was accessible to people of any social or economic status. An unadulterated bourbon julep is so balanced and enjoyable, it’s no wonder it’s held sway for so long,” Huerta added.
Pick a recipe
There are a ton of recipes out there, but if you want to stick to the original, this is the exact mint julep recipe served at the Kentucky Derby. You can deviate from it a bit with some of the tips below, but it’s a great starting point.
Get the ingredients right
Bourbon: “The most important ingredient is your favorite spirit,” said Brittney Olsen, senior corporate mixologist for Bacardi. “There’s nowhere to hide in a julep, so use what you love. I suggest Stillhouse, which is a Bacardi brand. They not only have original and flavored whiskies, but also a flavorful black bourbon.”
“The ideal spirit for a mint julep is a mid-80s- to 90-proof bourbon,” Huerta said. “A straight 80-proof might drink well for the first few minutes, but as the ice begins to melt, it will quickly become too diluted to be enjoyable. And a 100-proof bourbon has too much kick up front, so it risks dulling the taste buds.”
There’s a delicate balance when it comes to the amount of liquor to add, he said. “You need to consider how the rate of ice dilution will affect the drinkability of the cocktail. The trick is to make sure that the alcohol content is sufficient to stand up to that dilution over time, but not be so strong it knocks the drinker over the head and makes it unwise to consider having a second.”
Mint: “It shouldn’t overpower the cocktail, but act as an additional cooling agent that’s perfect for hot, humid Derby and summer days,” said bartender Lauren Pellecchia. Freshly picked mint is the herb at the heart of the cocktail, but be sure to use leaves only: “Stems will give your julep a bitter flavor,” Pellecchia said. Many recipes call for rubbing the glass with mint leaves before packing in the ice. “This allows the mint to express,” explained Elizabeth McCall, assistant master distiller at Woodford Reserve.
And be gentle with those leaves, too. “I’ve seen more than my fair share of pulverized mint, which is a mistake,” said Lauren Myerscough, co-founder of syrup-maker Cocktail & Sons. “When mint is gently pressed, it will release beautiful and fragrant oils. When it’s pulverized, it releases chlorophyll, which plays on the palate as bitter.”
Another option is to make mint syrup. “I don’t care for pieces of mint in my julep, and I find the texture to be off-putting,” Pellecchia said. “Plus, who wants to run the risk of having pieces of mint stuck in their teeth?” She prefers the smoother mouthfeel that syrup brings to the mix. “Using a syrup ensures you won’t have sugar left in the bottom of the cup,” she said. “From a professional perspective, it speeds up my build time and keeps the tasting experience consistent from cocktail to cocktail.”
Ice: The experts insist julep ice must be shaved or crushed. “To get the full cooling and refreshing effect, you need crunchable, chewable ice,” Pellecchia said. Many mentioned a preference for using a Lewis bag and mallet. It’s a canvas bag that absorbs excess water and keeps ice crisp, along with a mallet to pound the bejesus out of that ice, burning off any bottled-up anger you’ve been repressing until this particularly glorious day in May. If you’re in a hurry, here’s a fast-food hack from Leslee Macpherson, director of operations for Holly Hill & Co., a Kentucky restaurant group: “Go to a fast-food place, like Sonic, to buy bags of pellet ice.”
Now it’s time to fill your julep cups with that ice. “Pack them full, which helps to quickly chill the cocktail and prevents your julep from becoming an over-diluted, soggy and disappointing experience,” Pellecchia advised. “After you pour in the cocktail liquid, stir it briskly in one direction until your julep cup has fully frosted over on the outside.”
Speaking of cups, here’s a fun fact to consider while you’re stirring: The reason for that traditional silver cup is tied to the famous race itself. “It stems from the tradition of jockeys winning silver cups as trophies, which started around the same time the mint julep was becoming popular at the Kentucky Derby,” McCall said.
Sweetener: Depending on whether you’ve used a syrup, you may still need more sweetener. Macpherson adds a bar spoon of powdered sugar to the drink, then sifts powdered sugar all over the crushed ice once it’s packed in the cup.
How to batch it without botching it
“If you’re making juleps for a Derby party, it’s essential to batch them,” said Bill Whitlow, operator of Rich’s Proper Food & Drink in Covington, Kentucky. A two-time winner of the Four Roses Best Mint Julep in Kentucky competition, Whitlow pointed out that you don’t need to fuss with individual drinks if you make enough in advance. The first step is to make a batch of simple syrup the day before the party. “While the syrup is still warm — not hot — throw in a bunch of mint leaves, cover it, and when it’s cool, put it in the fridge overnight. The next day, strain out the mint and start making your cocktail,” he said.
“In a large pitcher, pour 2 ounces of bourbon and 0.75 ounces of mint syrup for each cocktail. Set out a bowl of crushed ice, glasses or julep cups, powdered sugar and mint sprigs, and let people serve themselves. This is a slightly sweeter version than we would serve at the restaurant, but it’s a crowd-pleaser for a large party,” Whitlow added.
Now that you have your equipment and techniques sorted out, check out these recipes below to get started on your own mint juleps and enjoy your Derby Day celebration.