The Mint Julep is an iconic pairing of sweet mint, simple syrup or sugar, and bourbon. It’s a refreshing iced cocktail that will get you through the warmest of summer evenings. Whether you’re into the Kentucky Derby or not, you’ll love this fresh and bright classic.
Traditional recipes call for muddling the mint with sugar. I like using simple syrup because it mixes fully into the bourbon. Really, it’s your choice.
What's a Mint Julep?
So much more than the Kentucky Derby mainstay for which it’s known, a great mint julep is a marriage of mint, sugar, bourbon, and the kind of cold that can only come by being poured over a mound of crushed ice. That’s it.
A class of drink unto itself (the Julep), the Mint Julep is essentially an Old-Fashioned, with the enlivening taste and scent of mint in place of the aromatics of bitters: You have your base spirit (bourbon), and you’re just adding a touch of life’s sweetness to make it all go down smoother.
Throw in more than 200 years of tradition and customs – including a sprig of aromatic mint to bury your nose in – and you’ll have the whole experience of it.
What's the History?
You can date the combination of spirit, mint, and sugar back to the late 18th Century, and a “mint julep” to the early 19th Century, when it was but one of several variations, with gin and brandy typically used in place of bourbon.
The English had been using the term “julep” to describe syrups for 400 years by that point, and the Arabic-speaking world – julab being the likely source for “julep” – longer still. Back when Muhammad ibn Zakaryia al-Razi (“Razi”, if you’re feeling friendly), the Persian polymath, was publishing his recipe in the Kitab al-Mansuri in 900, asking for a julep would have gotten you a cup of violets macerated with sugar and water.
By the time drinkers on this side of the Atlantic began preparing juleps that could knock you down if you had enough, it was no longer a simple “medicine” – though they were called as much – but had become a proper “Sling.” (Combine equal parts spirit and water, and “sling” it back with the help of a sugar cube or two.)
The choice of liquor would vary by region, with peach cognac, brandy, and rum used throughout the South, and rye coming in as you headed North. Initially considered vulgar, the whiskey or bourbon julep soon enough became the American standard.
While most commonly associated with the Kentucky Derby the mint julep – having been “minted” somewhere in Virginia – had by that time already enjoyed a 100 year run as the drink-of-choice for celebrations from New York City to Oxford.
None can deny that association, though, nor that the Derby probably does more to promote the drink and its traditions (notably those it created in the first place) than any other establishment known to man.
What Is a Julep Cup?
I should say right off the bat that while the “julep cup” is visually inseparable from the drink itself, you can serve this in any glass you wish, especially an old-fashioned.
It was only when the Julep made the jump from the tended bar to the home bar that it acquired its reputation for the frosted silver cups. Those cups are not solely for the sake of custom, though: they keep the drink itself positively chilled while you sip slowly away.
How to Make a Mint Julep
The deep honey, vanilla, and oak flavors of good bourbon are given fresh life by your muddled or in this case syruped mint, an eye-opening pairing that meets every definition of “refreshing.”
What looks finicky to prepare is in practice a series of simple steps that all lead to an immediately calming drink.
- Make simple syrup
- Fill Julep cup with ice
- Add bourbon, syrup and mint
- Garnish with more mint
Minting Your Julep
The simplest, and most traditional way to mint (and sweeten) that julep of yours is to combine 6-7 mint leaves with either a lump or two of sugar and a splash of water, or a tablespoon of simple syrup. Crushing the mint into the syrup releases its essence, and after adding your spirit, you’ll have a mint julep on your hands.
Another option – and one I’m likely to do most of the time – is to steep your mint leaves in the simple syrup while it’s still on the stove, cooling off after you’ve dissolved the sugar in the water. This will not only release those essential oils, but make sure they fully bond to the sugar and later mix fully into the bourbon. If you go this route, let the mint infuse for 10 – 15 minutes and cool completely, before using it.
What’s the Best Bourbon for Mint Juleps?
Unless you’re new to bourbon itself, you likely have strong opinions as to which are the best and most reliable. I’m personally a fan of Elijah Craig Small Batch, with its fine balance of oak, caramel, and even traces of spice and mint.
Four Roses Single Barrel has a high rye content and a high-proof that keeps its flavors going strong as the ice dilutes the drink. Booker’s Bourbon is higher-proof still (120-130 proof) and well-aged, with complex oak, leather, caramel and even cherry notes.
Other tips to keep in mind:
Price: Because bourbon will be your only spirit and, outside of the mint, your primary taste, you should avoid the true discount bottles. On the other hand, try not to spend more than $40-$50 on a bottle you are only going to use for mixing.
Age: The longer the spirit has aged, the deeper, richer, and more complex its taste. The more complex its taste, the more of it you’ll be losing in the mix (with ice, sugar, and mint). It certainly wouldn’t taste worse, but you might be overpaying.
Taste: Rye-based bourbons will be spicier, and wheat-based bourbons sweeter. There are innumerable distillers that strike a balance between those two or lean more heavily on deep oak or dark honey notes. You’ll want to find your own happy place when it comes to all of that caramel and spice, but you should at least enjoy the experimentation.
Variations on the Mint Julep
- Basil Julep: Truth be told, probably my favorite julep is made with a basil simple syrup. (Also handy for making a basil lemonade.) Simply substitute basil for your mint when making
- Brandy Julep: The original spiked julep! Try 1-1/2 ounces of brandy and 1-1/2 ounces peach brandy, with 1 ounce of minted simple syrup for a take on the other classic julep.
- Whiskey Smash: This close cousin of the julep differs only in containing fresh fruit. Muddle half of a lemon with your mint and simple syrup in the bottom of a cocktail shaker before filling it with ice. Add your bourbon and shake until chilled, then strain into an Old-Fashioned glass filled with crushed ice.
- Champagne Julep: After adding 2 ounces of bourbon and mint leaves muddled in 1/2 ounce of simple syrup to an ice-filled julep cup, top off with 4oz of champagne. Top off the cup with more fresh ice, as needed.
More Warm Weather Cocktails
- 2 1/2 ounces Bourbon
- 1/2 ounce simple syrup or 1 to 2 sugar cubes
- 8 mint leaves (plus 2 sprigs for garnish)
- Crushed ice
Combine the mint, simple syrup, and bourbon:
Combine the mint, simple syrup or sugar cubes, and bourbon in your glass or cup. Using a spoon, macerate the mint by crushing it into the sugar and liquid, releasing its essence.
Fill glass with crushed ice and pour cocktail:
Fill your glass or cup with crushed ice, and gently press a spoon into the ice, moving it around a bit to incorporate the ingredients.
Garnish and serve:
Garnish with 1-2 mint sprigs, and very much enjoy.