The History of the Mint Julep
There’s a saying – “Don’t Mess With Texas.”
Trademarked and everything, this slogan, which was created in 1986 by the state of Texas’ Department of Transportation, was emblazoned on signage flocking the state’s highways and byways as a measure to reduce littering throughout the state. But it’s taken on a life of its own, adopted as a measure of Texas swagger and wraps up, in just four words, what it means to be a Texan. This bold statement is one of the south’s most enduring taglines that can be backed up with a tangible sense of pride and belief in its superiority, just as other southern states recognize their pride and put their money where your mouth is with foodstuffs like Louisiana’s boudin and gumbo, North Carolina’s barbecue, and South Carolina’s Low Country cuisine. But nothing, NOTHING, surpasses the Mint Julep, Kentucky’s home town pride and joy, as an edible icon of the south and an entire culture. Not to mention a cultural phenomenon.
This true Kentucky tradition we’ve come to associate with the first Saturday in May, and the most exciting two minutes in sports, has a presence in our culinary history that stretches back long before the racetrack at Churchill Downs was erected; we can actually look back as far as 1803 to understand how this simple chilled combination of bourbon, mint and sugar came to be. Fred Minnick, author of the books Bourbon Curious and the Bourbon Authority for the Kentucky Derby Museum shares that the first mention of a Julep showed up in John Davis’ book, Travels of Four Years and a Half in the United States: 1798-1802. In it Davis defines the Julep as A dram of spiritous liquor that has mint in it, taken by Virginians of a morning. Minnick notes, “By liquor, he was referring to whiskey.”
Minnick happily points to other printed mentions of this celebrated concoction as he shares, “In a 1908 article about the Mint Julep, Lexington’s Samuel Judson told the reporter: ‘Take a silver cup—always a silver cup. Fill it with ice pulverized to the fineness of snow. Bruise one tender little leaf of mint and stick it in the ice. Then dissolve a spoonful of sugar in about three-quarters of a Kentucky drink of good whisky and let the fluid filter through the ice to the bottom of the cup. Shake the cup slowly until a coating of a thick white frost forms on the outside. Trim with mint and hand to an appreciative gentleman.'”
Gentlemen (preferably dashing in their seersucker, a fabric designed to combat the heat) and ladies have enjoyed this refreshing and simple libation for years at the Kentucky Derby, since1875, and throughout the South in general. But it really became a track staple, and icon, back in 1938 when the drinks sold for $.38 each and were served in a souvenir glass.
Like many souvenir items that have a way of mysteriously disappearing Churchill Downs’ legend has it that the glasses were so popular that they disappeared from the tables in the track’s dining rooms. Minnick explains, “Track management decided to charge dining room patrons an extra$ .25 cents if they wanted to keep the glasses.”
Plenty did. Though more now than ever before. From 1938 until 1952, just a year after what we now know as the traditional silver cups were introduced by Churchill Downs President Bill Corum, less than 100,000 commemorative Kentucky Derby glasses were annually produced. Fourteen years later, production rose to 250,000 and in 1974, which marked the 100th running of the race, 400,000 souvenir glasses were on hand for purchase.
Though it was Corum who introduced the sterling silver Julep cups in 1951, they were actually an idea of Col. Matt Winn, Corum’s predecessor who died in 1949. Winn had come up with the idea after chatting with the track’s officials about the need for another official, and useful, souvenir people could take home from the Kentucky Derby.
The cups, which feature a small horseshoe on the front, hold 12 fluid ounces. Both a drink of the people, and a celebratory quaff. After thousands are enjoyed all day long on Derby Day perhaps the most important one is the one lifted by the governor of Kentucky as he salutes the victorious Derby owner and proposes a toast over his Julep at the Winner’s Party that follows the race.
The party that is the Kentucky Derby saw vast numbers of Mint Juleps consumed over the years. Last year 5,040 liters of Bourbon were used to produce 127, 341 Mint Juleps at the race. That doesn’t take into the consideration the small number of $1,000 Juleps in commemorative cups which were designed especially for the 2015 race by Woodford Reserve, the official Bourbon of the Kentucky Derby. These hard to get your hands on drinks were more than just refreshing; they went to a good cause with the funds going to equine and human focused charitable foundations. This year is no different; monies raised from the sale of the 2016 Mint Julep cup, filled with a recipe designed by New York bartender Julie Renee Williams, will go to the Permanently Disabled Jockeys’ Fund.
While Williams’ recipe may be a step beyond what we saw in 1803, as a barely more than two step ingredient drink, this year’s entry, and the classic you’ll likely be downing as you watch the race, are an argument for the fact that when you’ve got a really good thing, you just run for the roses.