To many, the mint julep is an iconic accessory to the Kentucky Derby, but there’s more to this cocktail than big hats, horse racing and garden parties.
The mint julep is a story of an American takeover. What started as a daily health elixir made with any handy liquor has morphed into the elite juleps of the Derby, priced for charity at up to $2,500. But these expensive drinks simply disguise its everyman origins.
The Birth of an American Drink
The julep’s origins date to Persia, where it was documented in the Sasanian Empire (224–651 AD) as a rosewater bath called gulab for imperial princesses.
This concoction became associated with health elixirs to either drink straight or use in cooking.
Prescribed for shortness of breath and stomach issues since the 9th century, the julep reached as far as India through trade. Refined to an oil, it was sought widely throughout the Egyptian, Roman and Byzantine empires for medicine and skincare.
The Mediterranean’s indigenous and ample mint supplies replaced rose petals, and the name gulab morphed to julab and julapium. Michelangelo reportedly had a daily julab routine.
The mint julep’s purported medicinal value reached America in the 18th century. Full of warm, high proof rum or brandy, honey and muddled mint, it was both preventative medicine and a kickstart to the day. To cut the bite, wealthy drinkers with access to an icehouse chilled their juleps and threw in peaches, pineapples and berries.
But the days of the brandy and rum-styled julep in America were numbered. While Britain’s import taxes on items like molasses, sugar and rum helped fuel the American Revolution (1775–1783), winning the war didn’t change taxes on foreign liquor. Rum and brandy outpriced their popularity.
But with a surplus of both grain and a new crop, corn, farmers made an affordable and distinct whiskey that would eventually be dubbed Bourbon. This new corn whiskey joined its rye counterpart as a staple and reliable currency. Both were so popular that their economic potential landed whiskey in the sights of U.S Treasury secretary Alexander Hamilton.
At Hamilton’s urging, Congress taxed native liquor in 1791 to build the nation’s coffers, which resulted in the Whiskey Rebellion (1794). George Washington’s armed response set the standard for how the government handles uprisings. The crisis and ensuing legal battles united the family distiller-farmers on Kentucky’s frontier.
No longer was Bourbon simply the poor man’s drink found on the fringes. Over the centuries, Bourbon’s popularity and prestige swelled beyond the South to the rest of the United States and then, the world.
While it was produced throughout the frontier, Bourbon thrived in Kentucky. The state credits an abundant corn crop, oak forests and limestone water in the creation of its signature spirit. A 2019 report claims the Bourbon industry pumps $8.6 billion per year into Kentucky’s economy.
Mint Juleps and Horse Racing
“We have every reason to assume that juleps were a part of the first Derby in 1875, as they were popular drinks in the state at that time,” says Chris Goodlett, the Kentucky Derby Museum’s director of curatorial and educational affairs. “They were a part of racing culture, not just the Derby.”
Goodlett shares how Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr. (1846–1899), who founded Churchill Downs in 1875, supposedly grew mint behind the club. He also retells the local courier’s story of how famous Polish actress Helena Modjeska downed a large julep in 1877 meant for all of Clark’s guests to share. She then asked him for two more.
The mint julep became the Kentucky Derby’s official drink in 1939.
In 1938, Churchill Downs noticed that patrons were taking decorated water glasses home. Rather than fight the trend, the track embraced it. The following year, the julep came in the first collector cups.
Today, the mint julep supports the booming Bourbon industry. More than 10,000 bottles of Old Forester’s Mint Julep Ready-to-Serve Cocktail wind up in 120,000 glasses over an average Kentucky Derby weekend. Sister-brand Woodford Reserve releases a commemorative Derby bottle each year. And every April, leading up to the race, distilleries and bartenders across the state celebrate Mint Julep Month.
It’s one piece of the grand spectacle. And the ongoing legacy of the mint julep reaffirms the perseverance and identity of Kentucky Bourbon.