Perhaps, to truly appreciate a Mint Julep’s simple elegance, one has to be a die-hard fan of America in general, and the American South in particular. Many aren’t. How weird being unable to appreciate not only the country that gave us sweet potato pie, Dolly Parton, and bourbon whiskey, but also one of history’s most enduring cocktails.
Here’s a strange thing about the southern specialty loved by giants like William Faulkner, Teddy Roosevelt, and Ernest Hemingway: you’ll find no shortage of liquor nerds who hate it. I have a friend who’ll drink most anything, as long as it costs at least $16 or more, preferably served at the brilliant Keefer Bar in Chinatown. He hates Mint Juleps.
Then there’s the colleague, mentor, and conspiracy theorist I know whose affection for alcohol is great enough that he’s outfitted his Gulf Island sanctuary with an outdoors Frontier Townlike saloon. He loves country music, Maker’s Mark, and the films of Sam Peckinpah. And he hates Mint Juleps.
Google “Mint Juleps are awful” and you’ll get a long laundry list of articles like “The Most Terrible Drink In The World Is The Most Popular Beverage Of The Kentucky Derby”. And “I’ll say it: Mint Juleps are gross”. And “Mint juleps - how to make them not suck”.
The answerable question is “Why all the hate?” Especially given the drink’s unfussy simplicity.
Here’s what goes into a Mint Julep: mint leaves, bourbon, sugar, and crushed ice. That’s it, and always has been since the 18th century. Assuming you like liquor, chances are pretty good you enjoy a good bourbon, whether the label reads Jim Beam, Jack Daniel’s, Pappy Van Winkle, Bulleit, Baker’s, Basil Hayden’s, or Straight From Bubba’s Backyard Bathtub. Given ice is an essential part of the process for 95 percent of cocktails on the planet, that ingredient shouldn’t offend you.
Everyone, with the exception of Kourtney Kardashian, Kate Hudson, and Gwyneth Paltrow, loves sugar, so nothing to dislike there. And who—with the exception of people who not only have screaming halitosis but are fucking proud of it—doesn’t like the taste of mint?
Now that we’ve established that the four Mint Julep ingredients aren’t a problem on their own, let’s look at why they don’t work for many when combined.
But first, a little history. Going back a few centuries, the Arabic world gave birth to the golâb—a drink made with rose petals and water. To those conversing in Spanish Arabic, that became known as the “julepe”. Mediterranean mixologists came up with the idea of swapping in mint. And sometime in the late 1700s, the folks of Virginia began using ice and liquor in a mint drink that was by then dubbed the julep.
Sorry Kentucky, but Virginia is indeed thought to be ground zero for the cocktail as we’ve come to know it. In his 1770 play The Candidates, Robert Munford made one of the first recorded references to the drink with an alcohol-addled character named Mr. Julip.
Because the 1800s were when all-day alcoholism was good for you, no one judged you for whipping up a Mint Julep for breakfast, which was standard practice.
Originally there was no need to reach for the bourbon when getting busy with the mint, ice, and sugar. Cocktail Nation founding father Professor Jerry Thomas used brandy and a splash of Jamaican rum, augmenting crushed mint with berries and a small slice of orange.
By the 1930s the state of Kentucky had wrested ownership of the Mint Julep away from Virginia. Solidifying the win, in 1938 the cocktail was named the official drink of the Kentucky Derby, intertwining it with one of the most famous races in America. Today an average of 120,000 Mint Juleps are served at the official two-day event at Churchill Downs Racetrack. Each non-pandemic year, approximately 1,000 pounds of fresh mint, 60,000 pounds of ice, and endless raging rivers of sugar-dosed bourbon are combined for sartorially splendid revellers.
And maybe the Kentucky Derby, which takes place every first Saturday in May, is the reason that Mint Juleps become a go-to drink for nonhaters every spring. Admit it: no matter how much you despise Donald Trump’s America and Senator Moscow Mitch McConnell, you’d love to play dress up at the Run for the Roses. Coming complete with a week’s worth of booze-soaked pre-parties, it’s like Mardi Gras for equestrian sports fans—and a chance to pretend you’re fancier (which is to say less-trashy) than you really are.
With the 2021 Derby having just been run, and mint taking off in your garden—backyard or balcony—now’s as good a time as any to give the Mint Julep another try.
While easy to execute, there are a couple of important rules to follow. Most important is not only using fresh mint, but also following the rules for incorporating it in your drink.
Purists will demand using a silver cup, but your favourite IKEA glassware will do. Place a half-dozen or so mint leaves in the bottom and then muddle gently. The key word there is “gently”, which is to say you’re not making Kirkland-brand pesto here. Go easy and you’ll release the delicate oils in the mint. Make a pulpy mash and the bitter tannic acids in the leaves will crash the party.
Next add ice that’s been crushed (use a Lewis bag and mallet if you have them, a Ziploc and a rolling pin if you don’t) to look like snow. Dump a half-cup in the glass and then add a tablespoon and a bit of mint-infused simple syrup if you’ve come prepared, or a heaping teaspoon of white sugar if you haven’t.
Add more ice, two or three ounces of bourbon (if you don't have Pappy Van Winkle on hand, you won't go wrong with Maker's Mark), and a mini-bushel of mint leaves as a garnish. Serve with a straw (plastic if you don’t give a shit about the environment; metal or at least recyclable if you do). God bless America, at least the good parts, which, while many will argue otherwise, includes the often-maligned Mint Julep.
Need the recipe in bullet form? Here you go, courtesy of Maker's. Go easy on the goddamn mint (and we're not talking about the quantity).
Maker’s Mark Classic Mint Julep
2 oz Maker's Mark Bourbon
1/2 oz simple syrup
Fresh mint leaves
Add all mint and syrup to a julep cup, and gently muddle mint to express the oils. Add crushed ice and pour Maker's Mark over ice. Add more ice, stir, and garnish with a mint sprig.