Run for the Roses, Reach for the Bourbon

The mint julep, "the very dream of drinks." | Image: Maker's Mark

“Then comes the zenith of man’s pleasure. Then comes the julep – the mint julep. Who has not tasted one has lived in vain. The honey of Hymettus brought no such solace to the soul; the nectar of the Gods is tame beside it. It is the very dream of drinks, the vision of sweet quaffings.” ~Joshua Soule Smith

The opening quote is from an ode to the Mint Julep written by Smith, a Kentucky Colonel and Lexington Herald journalist, back in the 1890s. And nowhere will his prose resonate more than this Saturday at the 136th running of the Kentucky Derby. The mint julep has been the official cocktail of the Derby since 1938, and for more than 18 years, the Early Times Mint Julep has been designated “The Official Mint Julep of the Kentucky Derby.” The Derby website says that 120,000 mint juleps will be served at Churchill Downs over the weekend, and includes this recipe:

Early Times Mint Julep

The Early Times Mint Julep


  • 2 cups sugar
  • 2 cups water
  • Sprigs of fresh mint
  • Crushed ice
  • Early Times Kentucky Whisky
  • Silver Julep Cups
  • Make a simple syrup by boiling sugar and water together for five minutes.
  • Cool and place in a covered container with six or eight sprigs of fresh mint, then refrigerate overnight.
  • Make one julep at a time by filling a julep cup with crushed ice, adding one tablespoon mint syrup and two ounces of Early Times Kentucky Whisky.
  • Stir rapidly with a spoon to frost the outside of the cup.
  • Garnish with a sprig of fresh mint.

56 Julep | Image: Wild Turkey

The 56 Julep
Of course, there are plenty of variations on the mint julep, such as this one from Jimmy Russell, the Master Distiller at Wild Turkey. He calls it the 56 Julep, named for the “56 Derbies under his belt.” Russell uses the higher proof Wild Turkey 101 for a spicier julep with a kick.


  • 2.5 oz. Wild Turkey 101
  • 3 sprigs of mint (six to eight mature-sized leaves)
  • 1.5 teaspoons brown sugar
  • .5 cup crushed ice


  • In a traditional silver julep cup or double-Old Fashioned glass, muddle two sprigs of mint with the brown sugar and one ounce of Wild Turkey 101 for a few minutes, crushing the mint leaves with a spoon.
  • Add the crushed ice and the remaining bourbon.
  • Garnish with sprig of mint.

The Maker’s Mark Perfect Mint Julep
(Serves 4 to 6 people)
Now, any recipe that measures bourbon by the liter is fine by me, as in this rather elaborate one from the folks at Maker’s Mark. Since Maker’s Mark is made from soft red winter wheat instead of rye, this version of the mint julep will be smooth and on the sweeter side. Just remember to share it with a few others.


  • 1L Maker’s Mark
  • Lots of fresh spearmint
  • Distilled water
  • Granulated sugar
  • Powdered sugar


  • To prepare the mint extract, remove about 40 small mint leaves – wash and place in a small mixing bowl. Cover with 3 parts of Maker’s Mark. Allow the leaves to soak for 15 minutes. Then gather the leaves in a clean, soap-free piece of cotton cloth and wring the mint bundle over the bowl of whisky. Dip the bundle again and repeat the process several times. Then set aside.
  • To prepare the simple syrup, mix 1 cup of granulated sugar and 1 cup of water in a cooking pot. Heat to dissolve the sugar. Stir constantly so the sugar does not burn. Set aside to cool.
  • To prepare the Mint Julep mixture, pour 3½ cups of Maker’s Mark into a large pitcher. Add 1 cup of the simple syrup to the bowl.
  • Now, begin adding the mint extract a tablespoon at a time to the julep mixture. Each batch of mint extract is different, so you must taste and smell after each tablespoon is added. You may have to leave the room a time or two to clear your nose. The tendency is to use too much mint. You are looking for a soft mint aroma and taste; generally about 3 tablespoons.
  • When you think it’s right, pour the whole mixture back into the empty liter bottle and refrigerate it for at least 24 hours to “marry” the flavors.
  • To serve the Mint Julep, fill each glass (preferably a silver Mint Julep cup) half full with shaved ice. Insert a sprig of mint, and then pack in more ice to about an inch over the top of the cup. Then, insert a straw that has been cut to one inch above the top of the cup so the nose is forced close to the mint when sipping the julep.
  • When frost forms on the cup, pour the refrigerated julep mixture over the ice and add a sprinkle of powdered sugar to the top of the ice. Then serve.

In the following clip, Chris McMillian (co-founder of the Museum of the American Cocktail) talks about the mint julep’s history. Then he mixes one as he did for years, in the Library Lounge at the Ritz-Carlton, New Orleans, while reciting from Smith’s ode.


Wherever you watch “The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports,” hopefully you’ll be somewhere enjoying your mint julep, as in Smith’s closing words: “Sip it and dream, it is a dream itself…Sip it and say there is no solace for the soul, no tonic for the body like Old Bourbon whiskey.”

More Mint Julep and Derby Day coverage:

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