Mint Julep Roundup: Kentucky Derby Edition

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Mint Julep

The Kentucky Derby is this Saturday, and many of those watching this historic event will be doing so with mint juleps in hand. Sounds like the perfect time to jot down a couple of notes about this classic American cocktail.

The mint julep is another of those drinks shrouded in mystery, so in an effort to clear up some of the confusion (and possibly contribute to it) I’m going to offer up some of my ideas about what makes a spectacular drink, based on my knowledge and my palate. Feel free to take or leave the following advice as you will.

Okay. Some people are going to tell you to infuse either simple syrup or bourbon with mint. Most arguments are for ease-of-use, and that’s certainly going to be the case when you’re making 500 of them. But if you’re making a mint julep at home or for a single customer, there’s really nothing easier than measuring out a little simple syrup and quickly pressing a few sprigs of fresh mint. It’s fast, it’s the freshest method possible, and next weekend you’ll be able to make yourself a whiskey sour that doesn’t taste like old mint.

You’ll hear that the perfect mint julep is straight bourbon on the rocks, garnished with a sprig of mint. You’ll also hear that the perfect martini is merely cold gin garnished with olives. Let’s discard both of these ideas, as neither is a proper cocktail but rather cold alcohol with garnish.

What we’re looking for in a mint julep, as in any cocktail, is the perfect balance of several flavors. In an ideal mint julep, the alcoholic punch and rich caramel notes of bourbon should be set against the delicate bitterness and spicy herbal aromas of fresh mint. There’s your base. To carry these flavors further down the palate (and open up a few undiscovered notes), we’re going to add a touch of sugar. And to present this in a palatable fashion, we’re going to cool the whole mixture with crushed ice. The crushed ice is going to bring more water to the fire than cubes will, and you’ll cool some of that heat from the bourbon and the mint.

To help strengthen my point of view, I offer three very different videos. First, this one from the Small Screen Network illustrates how to put together a mint julep with Robert Hess’ usual technical precision.

Second, Chris McMillian waxes poetic about this great American gift to the world of cocktails and builds the drink with the elegance and sophistication that are his hallmarks:

Finally, for those of you who haven’t participated in this thread, here’s a brilliant rendition of everything you shouldn’t do when making a mint julep (save for adding the Woodford Reserve):

Yeah, I thought that was pretty funny, too.

Anyway, to wrap things up, a friend was asking where she could find some mint julep cups. I looked around and found this real pewter cup that looks great for $45, or this KegWorks guy that look like it’ll get the job done for $18.

Happy Derby Day, everyone.

25 Replies to “Mint Julep Roundup: Kentucky Derby Edition”

  • chad says:

    too bad about the lewis bag. wish this guy was around at the time

  • Galin says:

    Great posting as always Jeff. nice twist on the drink in my opinion is with 1/2 oz float of Xante Pear brandy on the top. my julep cups are quite tall and the drink usualy fills 3/4 of the volume leaving an ever important room to stick your nose in the cup and
    draw a breath of the wonderfull freshness of the mint. 😉

  • Mark says:

    oh my…the Reserve Julep? WTF was that all about?!?!!? I am no expert on mint juleps, but come on! That couldn’t be further away from the recipe. Thanks for the chuckle!

    On a side note…Woodford Reserve is one of my favorite sipping bourbons. If you haven’t tried it, grab up a bottle. Between $30-$35 in my part of Florida.

  • Erskine, I feel your pain. Believe me.

  • I had a friend call me this weekend about “How to make a Mint Julep”.

    I told him .5 parts simple syrup muddled with Mint. Add 2 parts Bourbon.

    He asked for the recipe for simple syrup.
    “1 part sugar, 1 part water”

    Are you SURE there is no lime in a Mint Julep?

    When I got to his house I tried one…they were horrible.

    Turns out he had made simple syrup with 2 parts sugar to 1 part water (“I found that on the Internet”) And he used Jack Daniels.

    Why bother calling me?

  • Aimee Scarlett says:

    My favorite Mint Julep recipe actually calls for Ezra Brooks bourbon, copious xxx amounts of mint, and a delicate splash of rum on top. And of course, a silver cup simply crammed to capacity with ice.

    It really makes a nice version.

    I’m working on making up an Eight Belles cocktail in honor of the filly.

  • Chuck P. says:

    What I lack in bartending knowlege I make up for in carpentry. Do a search for Carpenter’s Mallet — I saw a nice one on Amazon for less than 20 bucks. Most are smaller than the one in the video. The big mallett looks cool but keep in mind you would be swinging it around behind a cramped bar and lets face it, its just ice. Ladies and smaller gents might have trouble swinging a 3-4 pound hammer.

  • I’ve used a Ziploc bag and a wooden mallet. Works ok, but the bag is only good for one drink since the ice fills it full of holes and tears.

    By the way, where did the Lewis Bag get it’s name? Did it have anything to do with the Savoy?


  • I’ve used a Ziploc bag and a wooden mallet. Works ok, but the bag is only good for one drink.

    By the way, where did the Lewis Bag get it’s name? Did it have anything to do with the Savoy?


  • charlie says:

    Just an update on what happened last Friday night: There was indeed an order for a mint julep and it did happen during our big rush, but it was one of my co-horts who took the order. I’d emailed him your link (thanks for that!), but we don’t have a Lewis bag or a mallet, so I watched in amusement and sympathy as he struggled to make crushed ice with his muddler in a short shaker. Aside from that part he did well, but I had to turn away as we don’t have mint julep cups, either. Given the circumstances, he did a good job and the guest took it in stride, bless her heart.

    As for the lack of proper equipment, I’d consider a Ziploc bag and an empty champagne bottle, but the bar is made of stone and no drink is worth a handfull of stitches. I doubt we’ll have much call for them until next May, anyway.

  • heckler says:

    thanks for the midtown manhattan and manhattan 43 the other day. you inspired me to buy a bottle of old overholt.

    next time….a midtown manhattan served like the manhattan 43. the only problem – where to put the cherry, but that’s easy. on a toothpick like in a martini.

  • Tiare says:

    Great Video!

  • I’m going to be browsing the woodworking shops around here looking for a gigantic wooden mallet like Chris’ for myself – stay tuned!

  • innerlegend says:

    always thought mint juleps sounded better than they tasted, but this recipe has me inspired to try again. thanks for the reminder about the kentucky derby, too!

    if you’re looking for bartender gear that’s in touch with your inner child, then click on my name above.

    peace 🙂

  • Kelsey Crenshaw says:

    I cracked up when Mr. Mcmillan crushed the ice, not even missing a beat in his poem. Thanx for sharing Jeff. I like Big truck…. Have fun. Oh and I agree the cup is the difference! I woulda sent you the Bunda from down unda if I had the cash!!! Keep up the excellent information.

  • Dan says:

    McMillian’s video was great, but I prefer Jeff’s Julep recipe.

  • weso says:

    Ok. Great videos!

    I’m definitely going to see to making one of these tomorrow and maybe share one with my stepfather.

    One thing though, I’ve never seen someone break up ice with a HUGE wooden hammer. What’s up with that? Does anyone have a link to more info?

  • Charlie

    This is easy, you can do it. Grab a glass, measure out a quarter-ounce of simple. Toss in a small handful of mint leaves and press them gently with your muddler. Add whiskey. Throw in some crushed ice. Garnish.

    It’s really that simple. The only trick to not taking three minutes to make a mint julep like these guys is that you won’t be talking the whole time.

    Good luck.


  • I’ve got a few interesting Mint Juleps listed on Good Spirits News this week. Also, since Cinco de Mayo is coming up, I have some Margaritas, too.


  • charlie says:

    Wonderful stuff, but those guys take about 3 minutes to make that bugger. How can I do this at a bar with nice drinks (though it’s certainly no Employees Only), but a three-deep wait? It’s the night before the Derby; you know someone will ask for it.

  • Tyler says:

    A Mint Julep made like a Mojito, classic… The best bit was adding the sour mix or maybe the sprite!!!!!

  • Boavida says:

    Great post!!
    Do you know if McMillian has any internet presence besides the NOLA videos?

  • Jac says:


    That’s about all I can say about the McMillian video.

  • Amen to that. Chris has the audience eating out of the palm of his hand in every episode. If only I could be this good…

  • Sku says:

    After you posted the video of Chris McMillian making the Sazerac, I was captivated and watched all of his videos on YouTube. The guy is the consummate professional and a font of cocktail knowledge.

    The mint julep video, though, was probably my favorite. It’s great to see someone so invested in both the history and practice of his craft.

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