With the Kentucky Derby being run this weekend, we thought it would be fitting to explore the history of the Mint Julep, the traditional drink so closely tied to the race.
Juleps are the ancestors of centuries-old drinks from the Middle East known as julabs, which were made with water and rose petals. Juleps at some point made their way to the U.S. where their heritage dates to the 1700’s when the drink was probably made with brandy or rum or other spirits that were readily available.
In the early 1800’s, Henry Clay, a popular Senator from Kentucky, helped change the face of the Mint Julep to the bourbon cocktail we know today: mint leaf, bourbon, water and sugar prepared and served in a highball glass with a straw. He took Kentucky Straight Sour Mash Whiskey with him to Washington, D.C., where he introduced friends and colleagues to his drink at the Round Robin Bar inside the Willard Hotel. The Mint Julep was a hit and grew in popularity from there.
Decades later in the late 1800’s, Marvin Stone was sipping a Mint Julep and was dissatisfied with the natural rye grass straws used at the time. Those straws fell apart, imparted additional unwanted grassy flavors and left a gritty residue in the drink. He experimented by wrapping a piece of paper around a pencil and gluing the ends together, an invention that caught on. After several improvements to the initial design, including making a more sturdy paraffin-coated manila version, his drinking straw was patented in 1888. The invention was so successful, he turned his cigarette paper holder company into Stone Straw Company by 1906. Bourbon and the Mint Julep survived Prohibition and in 1938, the drink was officially promoted by Churchill Downs for the Kentucky Derby.
Brown-Forman’s Early Times Mint Julep Ready-to-Serve Cocktail has been “The Official Mint Julep of the Kentucky Derby” for over 18 years. Brown-Forman also makes Woodford Reserve, “The Official Bourbon of the Kentucky Derby.” Woodford Reserve has been used to make $1000 ultra-premium Mint Juleps served in silver cups since 2006, with proceeds this year benefiting the Old Friends Thoroughbred Retirement Center charity. And the Mint Julep is as popular at the Derby as ever, selling tens of thousands each year. So whether you actually make it to the Kentucky Derby or are watching from the couch with a few friends, a mint julep is the way to go. Here is a mint julep recipe with step by step instructions (start the night before). Let us know how it turns out!