More Than a Cocktail: The Cultural Significance Of The Mint Julep


The mint julep is more than just a drink to the people of Kentucky. It means spring has arrived and the Kentucky Derby is right around the corner. For many, it brings to mind days filled with Kentucky sunshine and long evenings spent sipping cocktails surrounded by friends and family. If Kentuckians have bourbon flowing through their veins then the julep is their beating heart. Or the other way around. Or maybe the julep is the capillaries?

Whatever the case may be: This time of year, Kentucky residents have a whole lot of mint julep circulating through their systems. That’s undeniable.

In the most basic terms, the drink consists of bourbon, sugar, fresh mint, and crushed ice. While there are plenty of different ways to construct one of these cocktails, mixing together the aforementioned ingredients is the easiest method.

“Some people love to muddle their mint to bring out more of the flavor, while others ease up on the mint,” says Keri Smith, Beverage Director of Doc Crow’s Southern Smokehouse and Raw Bar in Louisville. “It’s all dependent on the drinker.”

Some people like a bold, high proof bourbon, while others enjoy a lower proof, which results in a sweeter cocktail. But one thing is unchanging: The cocktail should always be served with crushed ice, in a silver cup, with bourbon. To be certain: it would be blasphemy to use any other form of whiskey.

Bourbon is not only a very “American” incarnation of whiskey, but it’s also Kentucky’s native spirit. It was an obvious choice for whoever dreamt up the drink. But, like many cocktails, the Mint Julep has a mysterious history with multiple theories of its genesis.

“There was a drink from the Middle East called the ‘julab,’” says Smith. “Rumor has it that in the early days of the julep, people had used brandy and cognac as their base.”

The julab was made from water and rose petals and brought to America (the name was probably was changed to julep because it’s smoother and everything in KY is smooth).

“Of course, as the julep recipe moved west, the locals used fresh and readily available ingredients — Kentucky bourbon and locally grown mint to name a few,” Smith continues. Eventually it morphed into what we know today, an herb-y cocktail that’s a close cousin to the mojito.

Like many old-timey cocktails, there’s a vague medical history to the drink too. Those old timey folks sure liked to drink for ‘health.’

“It’s been rumored the julep was once valued for medicinal properties curing stomach sickness in the 18th century,” says Woodford Reserve UK Brand Ambassador Tom Vernon.

The next mystery of the julep is the famous metal cup. The simplest answer is that it’s similar to the reason why Moscow Mules are made in own copper mugs.

“Silver cups were a sign of high society back in the day,” says Smith. “It’s like how people bust out their fine china for company, or for holidays like Thanksgiving and Easter dinners.”

Cocktail parties and galas would use the sterling silver cups as a fashion statement, and sometimes they were passed down to the next generation. Drinkers coveted these iconic sterling silver cups since long before the inception of the Kentucky Derby. “The classic design is attributed to two silversmiths, Asa Blanchard and brothers William and Archibald Cooper,” says Vernon.

The silver cups are a stamp of wealth as well as being highly functional. They keep your crushed ice from melting so the drink stays cold longer. While drinking, Julep cups should only be held by the top or the bottom so that the crushed ice inside them can create a frost on the outside.

“The julep is meant to last for roughly an hour (even on a hot day) in between race.” Says Vernon. “Additionally, the sipping straw is strategically placed within the mint leaf garnish so the drinker gets the mint aroma with every sip.”

After the Civil War, the Temperance Movement, World War I and Prohibition all but killed bourbon. Churchill Downs made the Mint Julep the “Official Drink” of the Kentucky Derby in 1938, but it was served well before that. Legend has it that mint was planted outside the clubhouse of Churchill Downs so the cocktail could be served at the first Derby in 1875.

“Kentucky folk are proud people,” says Smith. “We are proud of our state, our bourbon (and all its cocktails), our horses and racing.”