Whisky Magazine Issue 49
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Still the preferred drink of fashion-setters attending the Kentucky Derby, the Mint Julep can be simplicity itself, or a challenge. Ian Wisniewski looks at its history
Originally prepared in the late 18th century using rum, brandy or rye whiskey, the most impressive ingredient in a Mint Julep was actually ice, and not just because it helped to counter the heat in the southern states of the USA. Ice was initially so expensive that serving drinks with an abundance of crushed ice was automatically a status symbol. But at least it was a display of wealth that guests could enjoy for themselves.
When bourbon was first used in Mint Juleps, and how it came to exercise such a monopoly on this cocktail, is uncertain.
However, bourbon was more widely available by the mid-19th century, and by the beginning of the 20th century the only choice for a Mint Julep was bourbon.
The popularity of the Mint Julep spread across the southern states but reached a peak in Kentucky, where it became an integral element of the horse racing scene, notably the Kentucky Derby. As a showcase for the world's finest thoroughbreds, this has been run at Churchill Downs on the first Sunday of May since 1875. Tradition dictates that a Mint Julep is raised to toast the winner of a race known as the Run for the Roses, as the trophy for the winning horse is a garland of red roses.
Preparing a Mint Julep can be as straightforward as placing mint leaves at the bottom of a tall glass, stirring in bourbon, sugar syrup or white sugar, piling on crushed ice, and garnishing with a sprig of mint leaves.
But there are various other options, which can make this a far more time consuming...