Famous for its starring role at the Kentucky Derby, the mint julep is a classic bourbon cocktail filled with fresh flavor and is perfect for afternoon sipping.
When your herb garden is overflowing with mint, it means two things: 1) you have mastered herb gardening and 2) it’s time to make a mint julep.
What is a mint julep?
Mint juleps are a simple yet classic cocktail made of sweetened bourbon poured over ice with aromatic mint.
Though these strong cocktails are traditionally served at the Kentucky Derby, they can be enjoyed any time of year. (Ideally alongside a slice of Kentucky Derby Pie.)
Because they are often served in a silver julep cup, these cocktails become ice cold, so they are extra delicious on a hot day.
The official drink of the Kentucky Derby
According to the Kentucky Derby website, as many as 120,000 mint juleps are served over the two-day period of Kentucky Oaks and Kentucky Derby weekend at the Churchill Downs Racetrack.
“That’s a feat that requires more than 10,000 bottles of Old Forester Mint Julep Ready-to-Serve Cocktail, 1,000 pounds of freshly harvested mint and 60,000 pounds of ice.”
Can we all just say, “wow?”
I’ll go into more detail on my favorite bourbons for mint juleps below, but I will note that their comment above points out that they use the mint-infused bourbon by Old Forester. I much prefer my way so you can choose your own bourbon!
History of the mint julep
The mint julep is one of the oldest cocktails and has lots of Great Gatsby vibes.
However, it dates back to before the Civil War and has roots in Virginia where it was made with rum and brandy and was enjoyed for medicinal purposes. The recipe then traveled to Kentucky where bourbon whiskey replaced the need to import booze from the Caribbean.
Kentucky Senator Henry Clay then brought the recipe with him to Washington, D.C. in the early 1800s.
The mint julep we know and love became the official drink of the Kentucky Derby in 1938 and is served in bars around the world.
If you find yourself in Louisville, Kentucky, head to the Silver Dollar and order their mint julep — it’s the best julep I’ve ever had that I didn’t make myself.
Mint Julep Cups
Mint juleps are often served in a silver cup. You can find them online in stainless steel or silver-plated, sometimes there are even brass or pewter cups.
Hold the cup by the bottom or the top to keep the frosty appearance on the cup (and your hand a bit warmer).
Each year the Kentucky Derby designs a collectible glass to commemorate the occasion. I love perusing these vintage derby cups on Etsy.
Here are a few of my favorite julep cups if you’re looking to add to your glassware collection:
(While you don’t have to serve it in a fancy cup, I do recommend wearing your fanciest hat like the Derby-goers!)
Easy mint julep recipe
My recipe calls for a quick simple syrup infused with fresh mint, bourbon and crushed ice.
However, it can also be made with pure sugar instead of syrup.
This sweet drink is incredibly simple and can be made with just a few ingredients.
Here’s what you need to pick up at the grocery store to make a mint julep:
Mint simple syrup is easy to make with sugar, water and lots of fresh mint. (You’ll want to save some mint for the garnish, too.) You can use it to easily make a big batch of Derby cocktails.
However, you can also use sugar or plain simple syrup along with fresh mint if you don’t want to make a mint-infused version.
If you have a favorite bourbon, use it here! I love Old Forester for its sweet caramel flavor it brings to a drink at a good price, but there are many more options out there that would be equally delicious. (See below for more tips.)
Finely crushed ice is key to the mint julep. You will want to pack it into the cup like a snow cone.
You can use the crushed ice from your fridge, grind ice up in a blender or go old-school with a lewis bag and mallet. The finer the grind, the better.
For the garnish, a fresh mint sprig will make your cocktail look ultra official.
Tip: Hold the mint leaves in the palm of your hand and clap your hands together a few times. Also called “spanking” the mint, this helps to wake up the fragrant essential oils in the leaves. (Make sure you do this before making mint syrup, too!)
Best bourbon for a mint julep
This is a personal question because it really comes down to your favorite bourbon!
Let’s start with location. Technically bourbon can be made anywhere in the USA, but the julep comes from Kentucky, so why not the bourbon you make it with too? Look for “Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey” on the label.
Another option is to use the official bourbon of the Kentucky Derby. Each year, the Kentucky Derby partners with a whiskey sponsor for its mint juleps, so you could always go with their pick each year when you watch the Derby. In 2022, it’s Woodford Reserve.
However, Louisville — the home of the Kentucky Derby — is packed with bourbon distilleries. (Check out my Kentucky Bourbon Trail travel guide if you ever find yourself there.)
Angel’s Envy, Four Roses, Maker’s Mark and Bulleit bourbon are some of my favorites, and you really can’t go wrong with any of them!
Check out my Bourbon 101 guide if you need help picking a brand to buy. As I always say, use the best bourbon you can afford.
How to make a mint julep
The old-school way involves muddling fresh mint leaves, sugar and a splash of bourbon together in your cup, then topping with crushed ice and bourbon. You can use the handle of a wooden spoon or a wooden muddler made for drink mixing.
However, muddling can take a long time, which is why I recommend making your own mint simple syrup.
Sugar syrup is my favorite time-saving method because you can make tons of minty cocktails with one batch of syrup. Whether that’s lots of juleps or some minty mojitos is up to you!
If you can’t wait to make simple syrup, you can also use plain sugar or simple syrup with a drop of peppermint essential oil or peppermint extract.
To make a mint julep:
- Pour the mint simple syrup into your julep cup.
- Top with half the bourbon.
- Pack the cup with crushed ice. The finer the better.
- Add the remaining bourbon. This dilutes the ice a little to keep this strong drink from being overbearing. (Some people add a splash of water, but it’s not needed if you pour the bourbon over the ice.)
- Pack on some more ice on top.
- Garnish with a sprig of mint.
Variations and substitutions
There are tons of ways you can riff on a mint julep to make it all your own.
Make it non-alcoholic. Use Ritual Whiskey Alternative to make a virgin mint julep.
Have fun with herbs. This basil julep is made with basil simple syrup, but you could also use lemongrass, rosemary or thyme for delicious twists on this classic. This chocolate mint julep uses a varietal of mint that tastes like chocolate.
More Derby cocktails
While the julep is the drink to enjoy on Kentucky Derby day, it’s not the only drink enjoyed throughout horse racing season.
Mint julep popsicles made with bourbon would also be a fun addition to any Derby Party! I would also make some bourbon desserts like salted brown butter bourbon rice krispie treats and bourbon chocolate chip cookies.
- ¾ ounce mint simple syrup
- 2½ ounces Kentucky bourbon
- crushed ice
- 1 mint sprig, for garnish
- Add mint syrup to a julep cup or rocks glass.
- Add half the bourbon. Stir together.
- Top with crushed ice. Pack it into the cup.
- Add the rest of the bourbon.
- Top with more crushed ice and garnish with a mint sprig.
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Nutrition Information:Yield: 1 Serving Size: 1 cocktail
Amount Per Serving: Calories: 168Total Fat: 0gSaturated Fat: 0gTrans Fat: 0gUnsaturated Fat: 0gCholesterol: 0mgSodium: 3mgCarbohydrates: 2gFiber: 0gSugar: 1gProtein: 0g