Don’t skimp on the mint: Juleps for Derby day…and beyond

Mandolin's Mint Julep.

photograph by Juli Leonard

Don’t let the mint fool you. That lighthearted, summery herb, equally at home in iced tea and lemonade, is here on a mission. Mashed up with sugar, its oils and essence make what comes next suitable for a springtime afternoon. Because without it, a julep’s just a whole lot of bourbon in the midday sun.

At Churchill Downs racetrack in Louisville, Ky., they’ve been serving up juleps to Kentucky Derby fans for nearly a century. It became the signature drink of the track in 1938 when they introduced souvenir glasses for 75 cents, and today, the track sells about 120,000 of the cocktails over the course of race weekend. They don’t skimp on the mint: More than 1,000 pounds of freshly picked green leaves make it all happen.

This year, as contenders like Verazzano, Goldencents and Orb get ready for the 139th “greatest two minutes in sports” on May 4, bartenders everywhere are tuning up their own version of the drink to toast them with.

At the Umstead Hotel’s bar, a julep comes with tobacco-infused simple syrup, a slice of honeycomb, and homegrown mint. At Mandolin restaurant, Kentucky Colonel spearmint from The Little Herb House in Raleigh makes a star turn.

The julep – whose name is derived from the Arabic gulab, or refreshing cocktail made of rose petals – is thought to have originated in the agricultural South as a morning pick-me-up sometime in the 18th century and was first mixed with rye or rum. Needless to say, a morning pick-me-up these days is more likely to include caffeine than alcohol, and a julep is now made with bourbon. Typically, that’s the ingredient that receives the most attention, but it would be a shame to let the mint to take too far a back seat.

Hardy perennial  

Some will tell you that mint is a weed. They are wrong. Actually, they are right, but the word ‘weed’ doesn’t do this aromatic perennial herb justice. Because while mint may be invasive, fans prefer to consider it simply tougher than most. Plant a little, get a lot. And you’ll need it, because mint is more than a flavorful addition to a cocktail; it’s also a perfect antidote to one. Known to soothe nausea and improve digestion, mint is claimed by some to improve alertness and memory. What more could you want in a daytime libation?

So, once you have a gracious plenty of mint leaves at the ready –  put aside a good pile for garnish, and consider your options.

The bartenders at Churchill Downs vouch for making a simple syrup and steeping mint in it overnight. They have volume to contend with; you might not. Another way is to soak the mint in bourbon for a short time, creating a sort of spiked extract.

But muddling the mint with sugar in the serving cup itself is the traditional method. Using the end of a wooden spoon – or a muddler, which is a bartender’s pestle shaped like a baseball bat – muddling basically means smashing the leaves, releasing enough flavor to stand up to the bourbon.

Even here, of course, there are schools of thought. Some abhor the idea of muddling at all, preferring their mint to remain a decorative flourish, not a flavor. Others suggest a gentle pounding that merely encourages a hint of mint to emerge. And a small minority argue for a well-muscled muddle, making for a super-minty cocktail, but one that begins to resemble a Mojito.

Most use regular sugar, which acts as an abrasive. Some wouldn’t put sugar in a julep if their lives depended on it. Some insist on a splash of seltzer, others stick to flat water; some pour it all over crushed ice, others allow a cube or two.

And as for the bourbon: Kentucky’s limestone water started the bourbon-making business there in the 1800s. Today’s small Kentucky labels like Four Roses, Heaven Hill, Town Branch, and Woodford Reserve draw on that heritage and make a worthy counterpart to a sprig or two of the minty weed.   


Umstead Summer Julep

Courtesy of Kyle Davis, Bar Manager, The Umstead Hotel and Spa

2 ounces Four Roses bourbon

8 to 10 sprigs mint

½ ounce North Carolina tobacco-infused simple syrup

1 slice Savannah Bee Company

In a cocktail shaker, add mint and one scoop of ice. With a wooden muddler, muddle vigorously until ice is finely crushed. Continue by adding Four Roses bourbon and tobacco simple syrup. Shaking once more, transfer all contents into a mason jar or Julep cup using a bar spoon. Complete by garnishing with a generous slice of Savannah Bee Company’s fresh honeycomb and serve immediately.


Mandolin’s Mint Julep

Courtesy of Addison Dailey, Bartender, Mandolin

10 to 12 spearmint leaves*

2 ounces Woodford Reserve bourbon

1 ½ teaspoons raw turbinado sugar

crushed ice

In a julep cup, gently muddle the mint leaves with a little bit of ice. Add in the sugar and a splash of bourbon, continuing to lightly muddle until the sugar has dissolved and married into a mash with the mint. Next fill the julep cup (a little less than full) with ice, and add the rest of the bourbon; stir for 30 to 45 seconds until frosted. Top off with ice, and
garnish with a sprig of mint.

*Mandolin uses Kentucky Colonel mint from The Little Herb House in Raleigh