It's known as the unofficial drink of the south -- made with bourbon, sugar or simple syrup, crushed ice and fresh mint, the mint julep has captured the hearts and tastebuds of cocktail lovers everywhere.
So just how did this summery libation come to be? The southern cocktail was referenced as early as 1784, when mint juleps were originally associated with medicinal properties. The julep was intended to soothe an unsettled stomach (I meaaaan...alcohol as medicine? We've all heard that one before). But its origins actually go back even further. Woodford Reserve's master distiller, Chris Morris, said that "centuries ago, there was an Arabic drink called julab, made with water and rose petals. The beverage had a delicate and refreshing scent that people thought would instantly enhance the quality of their lives." Mint eventually replaced rose petals, and thus began the cocktail's rise in popularity. The libation was even more desirable as access to ice and silver or pewter cups was limited at the time. Bougie drink, indeed. U.S. Kentucky senator Henry Clay famously cemented the mint julep's status during his time in Washington, D.C. and Town & Country Magazine claims that some say Clay's original recipe is still used at the Round Robin Bar to this day.
Which leads us to the longstanding association of the mint julep with the Kentucky Derby. It is the it-drink of the horseracing event. Of course, yours truly has never attended the derby, but this much I know. Water? At the derby? Never heard of her.
One tie between juleps and horseracing can be found in the sterling silver julep trophy cups that were awarded to winning jockeys back in the 1820s. At the onset of the Prohibition, southern newspapers even lamented the imminent loss of their favorite cocktail. After the Prohibition was over, racetrack managers saw that visitors were stealing the glasses that the juleps were served in and decided to start selling them. In 1938, it was declared the official drink of the Kentucky Derby.
Fun fact: According to The Manual, Churchill Downs serves up to 120,000 juleps during the Kentucky Derby's two-day races! Oh, and there's an extra fancy version of the mint julep available for a cool $1,000; they're made with Woodford Reserve bourbon, mint imported from Ireland, spring water ice cubs from the Bavarian Alps and sugar from Australia. Did I mention they're also served in gold-plated cups with silver straws? I'll just be over here with my commoner's mint julep, thanks.
The Kentucky Derby may have passed, but it's obvious that this beloved southern sipper's popularity is year-round.