When the Kentucky Derby rolls around again, impress your Derby Day party guests with a perfect mint julep. Your celebration won't be complete without this cocktail, which has been associated with the annual horse-racing event since at least 1938. The two secrets to creating a delicious mint julep are using a top-quality bourbon and muddling the mint correctly.

Mint Julep History

Few cocktails embody America's deep South more than the mint julep and for good reason. This drink has its roots in Virginia, where farmers would drink a similar drink before setting off for work. A simple mixture of rum or brandy along with mint and sugar syrup was believed to have medicinal properties. It's easy to imagine that the combination would provide quite a boost in the early morning.

The drink's name, "julep," also has an interesting history. The root of the word is in the ancient Persian name for sweetened rosewater, "gulab." If you've eaten at an Indian restaurant, perhaps you noticed a drink called "gulab jamun," which is made with the same sweet syrup. "Gulab" transformed into "julab" in classical Arabic and in Latin as "julapium."

The Birth of the True Mint Julep

Over time, the less-sweet Kentucky bourbon replaced rum and brandy. Then, in 1938, the mint julep was named the official drink of the Kentucky Derby. Traditionally, the simple cocktail was served in pewter cups. Nowadays, the cups are called julep cups.

The crushed ice inside causes a frost to form on the outside of the cups in the warm, humid air of the South. To hold a julep cup, you're supposed to grip the rim or the base. That way, you don't disturb the frost on the outside of the drink. If you grasp the rim, you might also help prevent your fingertips from turning icy.

How to Muddle Mint

Before embarking on your journey to learn how to make the perfect mint julep, it is vital that you know how to muddle mint. Believe it or not, there really is a right way and a wrong way to crush the mint leaves in the bottom of the glass or julep cup. Get it wrong, and you could serve a nasty, bitter mess full of stringy bits to catch in your guests' teeth.

You don't actually need a bona fide muddler to muddle mint. Any implement that has a firm, slightly rounded surface at the end of a handle will do. However, the implement must not be varnished, painted or covered in another coating. Otherwise, the coating may flake off into the mint leaves.

Take it Easy When Muddling

The chemical that gives green leaves their color is a bitter substance called chlorophyll. You don't want to crush the mint leaves so harshly that this bitter chemical is released. Also, don't press so hard that the leaves tear or break apart, filling the bottom of the glass with stringy pieces.

To muddle mint for a mint julep, place about eight whole mint leaves on the bottom of a highball glass or julep cup. Press the leaves gently with a muddler or similar instrument, slightly twisting as you press down. Stop muddling when the leaves are flattened and softened and before they leak green juice or begin to break into pieces.

Simple Syrup Recipe

Mint julep ingredients include simple syrup, which is a mixture of sugar and water. This colorless liquid adds sweetness to cocktails without interfering with the flavors of the other ingredients. You can make simple syrup at home very quickly and easily. If you are preparing for an evening cocktail party, make a batch of simple syrup in the afternoon to allow time for the mixture to cool.

Total Time: 5 minutes | Prep Time: 1 minute | Serves: 1 1/2 cups simple syrup

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup water
  • 1 cup sugar

Directions:

  1. Pour the water into a saucepan.

  2. Add the sugar and turn on the heat.

  3. Stir the sugar into the water as it heats.

  4. Remove the saucepan from the heat when the mixture is clear.

When the mixture has cooled to room temperature, pour it into an airtight container. Seal the lid on the container and store the simple syrup in the refrigerator. When refrigerated, the liquid remains fresh for four weeks.

Tip

To infuse simple syrup with extra flavor, add aromatic ingredients when you remove the saucepan from the heat. Try fresh herbs, citrus peel, cinnamon sticks, chiles, ginger, vanilla beans, cloves, nutmeg and rose petals. Remove the ingredients when the syrup has cooled. Flavored simple syrup keeps no longer than two weeks in the refrigerator.

Mint Julep Recipe

Mint julep isn't the kind of drink you can just slap together. Preparation and presentation are key to making this cocktail great. Don't go cheap on the bourbon. Liquor and mint are the primary flavors of a mint julep, so skimping on the quality of either ingredient has a big effect on the taste of the finished drink.

If you aren't using a julep cup to serve your drink, select a thick-walled rocks glass. This sturdy, squat container isn't likely to break when you're muddling the mint or packing in the crushed ice. A rocks glass is also easy to hold by the rim or base.

Total Time: 5 minutes | Prep Time: 5 minutes | Serves: 1

Ingredients:

  • 10 mint leaves and 1 mint sprig
  • 1/4 ounce simple syrup

  • 2 ounces bourbon

  • Crushed ice

Directions:

  1. Place the 10 mint leaves in the bottom of a julep cup or rocks glass.

  2. Pour in the simple syrup.

  3. Muddle the mint leaves.

  4. Pour in the bourbon.

  5. Pack the cup or glass to rim with crushed ice.

  6. Stir the cocktail until the outside of the container is frosted.

  7. Push in a straw.

  8. Add more crushed ice and shape it into a dome.

  9. Push in the mint sprig as a garnish and serve.

Tip

Add a few drops of Angostura bitters to the top of the finished cocktail as an additional garnish and to provide an added zing.

Variation on the Mint Julep Cocktail: #1

Mint julep cocktail variations are all about fresh, aromatic flavors, shades of icy green and powerful alcoholic kicks. Substitutes for mint leaves include thyme and basil, while Chartreuse and lime juice supply a greenish hue and new, innovative tastes. To replace bourbon for the liquor component, try brandy, whiskey gin and liqueurs. Here are three suggestions.

Total Time: 5 minutes | Prep Time: 5 minutes | Serves: 1

Ingredients:

  • 6 mint leaves

  • 1/2 ounce green Chartreuse

  • Pebble ice

  • 1 ounce gin

  • Mint sprig

Directions:

  1. Place the mint leaves in the bottom of a rocks glass.

  2. Pour in the Chartreuse.

  3. Muddle the leaves with the Chartreuse.

  4. Put a straw in the glass and then fill it with pebble ice.

  5. Add the gin.

  6. Garnish with a sprig of mint and serve.

Variation on the Mint Julep Cocktail: #2

This second variation focuses on subtle flavors and aromas. To make the rose-infused simple syrup, steep a handful of rose petals in 1 1/2 cups of freshly made simple syrup until the syrup has cooled. Becherovka liqueur is an herbal liqueur.

Total Time: 5 minutes | Prep Time: 5 minutes | Serves: 1

Ingredients:

  • 8 mint leaves
  • 3/4 ounce rose-infused simple syrup
  • 1 teaspoon Becherovka liqueur
  • Crushed ice
  • 2 ounces bourbon
  • Mint sprig

Directions:

  1. Place the mint leaves in the bottom of a rocks glass.

  2. Pour in the rose-infused simple syrup and Becherovka liqueur.

  3. Muddle the leaves with the syrup and liqueur.

  4. Fill the glass with crushed ice.

  5. Pour in the bourbon.

  6. Stir the cocktail and put in a straw.

  7. Garnish with a mint sprig.

Variation on the Mint Julep Cocktail: #3

A third variation of the mint julep harks back to the drink's predecessor. Brandy replaces the bourbon, and a little plain sugar is the old-fashioned substitute for simple syrup. A little water reduces the booziness, and lime juice lifts the sweetness of the brandy and sugar. Lime juice also helps to enhance the green tinge of mint.

Total Time: 5 minutes | Prep Time: 5 minutes | Serves: 1

Ingredients:

  • 8 mint leaves
  • 1/2 teaspoon sugar
  • Crushed ice
  • 1 1/2 ounces brandy
  • 1 1/2 to 3 ounces water
  • Dash of lime juice

  • Mint sprig

Directions:

  1. Place the mint leaves in the glass.

  2. Sprinkle the leaves with sugar.

  3. Muddle the mint leaves and sugar.

  4. Wipe the muddled leaves around the interior of the glass.

  5. Half-fill the glass with crushed ice.

  6. Pour in the brandy and water and add a dash of lime juice.

  7. Fill the glass to the rim with crushed ice.

  8. Stir the cocktail to mix the ingredients.

  9. Push in a straw and add more ice to create a dome on the top.

  10. Garnish with a sprig of mint and serve.

Virgin Mint Julep #1

Create a nonalcoholic mint julep by replacing bourbon with iced tea, cola or ginger ale. These substitutions are weaker-flavored than bourbon, so a greater volume must be added to allow their taste to come through. Consequently, a virgin mint julep contains more liquid than the traditional drink.

Total Time: 5 minutes | Prep Time: 5 minutes | Serves: 1

Ingredients:

  • 5 mint leaves
  • 1/2 ounce simple syrup
  • Crushed ice

  • 10 to 14 ounces ginger ale

  • Sprig of mint to garnish

Directions:

  1. Put the mint leaves in the bottom of a rocks glass.

  2. Pour the simple syrup into the glass.

  3. Pack in crushed ice to the rim of the glass.

  4. Pour ginger ale to fill the glass.

  5. Stir the cocktail to gently mix the liquids.

  6. Put in a straw.

  7. Add more crushed ice and form it into a dome.

  8. Push the sprig of mint into the ice as a garnish and serve.

Virgin Mint Julep #2

If you're catering for a kids' party or would like to offer an alcohol-free, refreshing punch at a party for adults, make a bowl of virgin mint julep. Increase the quantities according to the number of people you want to serve and use ice cubes rather than crushed ice.

Total Time: 15 minutes | Prep Time: 10 minutes | Serves: 6 adults or 10 children

Ingredients:

  • 1 bunch mint leaves
  • 1 cup simple syrup
  • 1 cup water
  • Ice cubes
  • 2 quarts cola

Directions:

  1. Put the leaves in a punch bowl.

  2. Add the syrup and muddle the leaves.

  3. Add the water and stir it in.

  4. Half-fill the bowl with ice cubes.

  5. Pour in the cola.

  6. Wait 5 minutes before serving to allow time for the ice to cool the drink.

Tip

To make the mint julep punch look especially pretty, float rose petals on top.

About the Author

Jenny Green

Jenny Green has a Masters in English literature and has been a freelance writer since 2008.