The untold truth of the mint julep

Many may be familiar with the mint julep for its designation as the official drink of the Kentucky Derby. The mint julep is made with mint and sugar, stirred with crushed or shaved ice, and paired with a spirit such as bourbon or rum (via CNN Travel). What you may not know is that the mint julep has been around, in some form, for over a thousand years.

The first known mention of the mint julep is from a Persian medical text that dates to 900 CE, according to David Wondrich, the author of Imbibe!, a book on the history of cocktails (via Mental Floss). That mint julep was a bit different than the modern version, though, as it was used as a medicinal drink and was made by soaking violets and sugar in water. The term "julep" shows up again when the book, Kitab al-Mansuri, was translated into Latin several hundred years later.

The mint julep was used as a medicinal drink for hundreds of years. It then crossed the Atlantic to arrive in America with the early European settlers. They brought the eponymous ingredient, mint, along on their journey, which was the point at which mint juleps began to evolve.

The evolution of the mint julep

In the 18th century, the julep was used to treat stomach aches and for those who had swallowing issues (via PBS). At the same time, the mint julep began to be consumed recreationally in addition to being used medicinally, though the cocktail was still far from the drink we recognize as a mint julep today. Also, they were made with whatever spirit was available. Prior to the Civil War, juleps in the south were likely made with fruit brandy. In Maryland, they were made with rye whiskey, which they are still made with in that state today. Outside of those areas, a likely choice was rum, rye, or moonshine. They would then use honey as a sweetener, or sorghum syrup if honey wasn't available.

By the early 1800s, the mint julep had become a staple of genteel society for those south of the Mason-Dixon line. Many farmers in Virginia drank it as a morning restorative, the way a farmer might drink coffee today.

The consumption of mint juleps was also determined by the seasons, as mint was not yet available year-round, so they were typically enjoyed in the spring and summer when mint was in season.

The mint julep comes to the Kentucky Derby

Another facet of the evolution of the mint julep resulted from Senator Henry Clay from Kentucky, who is credited with making bourbon the base of a mint julep. Being from Kentucky, he enjoyed his mint julep with the spirit Kentucky is famous for — bourbon — which he documented in his journals, describing it as, "mellow bourbon, aged in oaken barrels." In addition, Clay is thought to have introduced the mint julep to the Willard Hotel, which is now famous for serving it. The hotel opened in Washington, D.C. in 1847.

This brings us to the Kentucky Derby, where the first references to mint juleps showed up in the 1820s. Sterling silver julep cups were awarded as trophies to jockeys who placed first. At the same time, the drink was evolving as icehouses began showing up throughout the south, and crushed ice became an essential part of the mint julep (via Tasting Table).

As a drink, mint juleps have been served since 1875 when the Churchill Downs facility was built by Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr., beginning the official Kentucky Derby. Sarah Brown Meehan, the director of lifestyle communications at Churchill Downs, told Good Morning America, "We know that juleps were a big part of the event by Prohibition because the press at the time lamented the Kentucky Derby without its favorite drink."

The julep cup

After the repeal of Prohibition, Chris Morris, a master bourbon distiller, told Good Morning America that making the mint julep the official drink, which it did in 1938, "simply recognized the fact that Kentuckians had been enjoying mint juleps while attending horse races since the early 19th century, if not earlier."

The julep cups served a purpose. Mint juleps were initially served in pewter julep cups with shaved or crushed ice. The cups should only be held by the top or bottom so the ice can create a frost on the outside (via The Atlantic).

By 1939, the mint julep was already being capitalized on as racetrack managers noticed that visitors were stealing the water glasses the mint juleps were served in, and decided to sell the glasses as souvenirs.

That popularity is evident in the number of drinks served. Approximately 120,000 mint juleps are served at the event each year. They are made with Early Times Kentucky Whiskey, the official supplier for the Kentucky Derby for over 18 years.