It’s almost May and that means that Derby Day is right around the corner, so the biddies explore a classic cocktail and Kentucky Derby favorite: the mint julep. It turns out there’s a lot more to the history of mint juleps than meets the eye. Learn about the origin of the mint julep and how it became the cocktail it is today (and by the way, it wasn’t always made with bourbon).



Image Credit: Town and Country Magazine

Study Notes:

*Please note some of these lines might be directly taken from sources noted above.


Bourbon, sugar and mint served in a pewter cup, traditionally with crushed ice.

  • Derek Brown of DC’s Columbia Room: “As the ice melts and dilutes, the drink gets cooler and the flavors change,” says Brown. “That’s why crushed ice is used. It contributes to it, changing over time.”


  • Mint Juleps have their origin in the Arab world. There is an Arabic drink called julab made with water and rose petals – a variation of this used indigenous mint
    • Perhaps originated in Persia 224-651 AD as a rosewater bath for imperial princesses but was traded throughout the middle east as a health tonic for stomach issues and also for skincare
    • When it reached the mediterranean, their ample mint made its way into the concoction
  • First mentioned in print in 1803 as a “dram of spirituous liquor that has mint in it, taken by Virginians in the morning”
    • Known for its medicinal properties, it was usually made with rum or brandy, honey and muddled mint
    • After the revolutionary war, prices on rum and brandy made them difficult to get, and switched to bourbon
  • 1830s: Ice houses would have made it possible to start serving juleps with mounded crushed ice
    • Juleps with ice were briefly called hailstorm juleps to distinguish them from those without
  • 1850: Henry Clay, the US Senator from Kentucky supposedly made the mint julep popular in DC at the Round Robin Bar, by some accounts, the bar at the Willard Hotel still uses Clay’s recipe
  • It became the official drink of the Kentucky Derby in 1938
    • An estimated 120,000 mint juleps are served at Churchill Downs
    • 10,000 bottles of Bourbon
    • 60,000 tons of ice
    • 1,000 pounds of fresh mint
      • May have been served at the first derby in 1875 (supposedly with gin though)
      • Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr. (1846-1899), founder of the racing club, grew mint behind Churchill Downs

→ This is mostly from Town & Country’s very white history of the mint julep, which only mentions that Ray Charles had a hit song “One Mint Julep” which was a cover of a song from 1951 by the Clovers

Points to

  • Many black bartenders, both freeman and enslaved, used the mint julep to make names for themselves
    • Cato Alexander, emancipated man who ran a Manhattan inn, made his tavern a destination for the julep
    • John Dabney and Jim Cook, while still enslaved became celebrated for their mint juleps that they served in Richmond VA in the 1850s
      • These may have been made with brandy
      • In episode 73, we discussed how these two were rivals
        • Dabney’s ‘Julep a la Dabney’ earned him enough money to buy freedom for himself and his wife
        • We also talked about Tom Bullock, born to a freedman in Louisville KY in 1872
          • “The Ideal Bartender” itself was born out of controversy. During the 1912 election there were persistent rumors that Theodore Roosevelt was a secret drunk. After hearing a Roosevelt speech in Marquette, Iron Ore editor George Newitt penned an article that declared, “Roosevelt lies, and curses in a most disgusting way, he gets drunk too, and that not infrequently, and all of his intimates know about it.”
  • Roosevelt sued for libel. During the testimony for the suit the former president conceded that in the years since he had left the White House he drank two Mint Juleps. One occasion was at the St. Louis Country Club, and he claimed to have only taken a couple of sips. This led to a playful editorial in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on May 28, 1913. The writer contends that Bullock’s drinks are so good Roosevelt couldn’t be telling the truth: “Who was ever known to drink just a part of Tom’s? Tom, than whom there is no greater mixologist of any race, was taught the art of the julep by no less than Marse Lilburn G. McNair, the father of the julep.”

“A Bumpy Comeback”

  • During Prohibition, the mint julep was marginalized in favor of cocktails like the Manhattan and the martini
  • After Prohibition, Kentucky was trying to reboot its whiskey industry – many whiskey brands played at nostalgia for the heyday of whiskey in the 19th century using racially charged imagery of the Old South with white men being served on by black men
  • The bequeathing of the mint julep as the official drink of Churchill Downs in 1938 cashed in on this newfound nostalgia for the Old South. But the racial stereotypes depicted in these ad campaigns would erase any memory of the esteemed black bartenders who advanced the cause of the julep in cities around the country in the 19th century. “The mint julep got swept up into the Old South magnolia mythic imagery of Gone with the Wind and everything else,” Moss says. Robert Moss is the author of Southern Spirits


  • Will Elliot, bar director at Sauvage and Maison Premiere in Brooklyn serves the Sonneville Julep which uses cognac as the base of the drink

Official Derby bourbon is Woodford Reserve

  • Became the official bourbon in 1999
  • Make a commemorative bottle every year with paintings of racehorses on it by Jaime Corum, KY native and equine artist
  • There’s another official cocktail of the derby – the Woodford Spire (bourbon, lemonade, cranberry juice, twist)

Why the metal cup?

  • Distinguish it as a rich man’s drink – appears in Gone with the Wind in 1938, the same year claimed by the Derby
  • Nice ice frost on outside – keeps the cocktail colder longer

Also from Derek Brown: “I think that it’s a cocktail that fulfills a couple of points at the same time,” says Brown. “It’s a very aromatic cocktail—a very beautiful cocktail—so on that side, it has this almost ethereal characteristic. On the other side, it’s boozy as fuck. So you have this beauty and this brawn at same time. And when done well, that makes for the best cocktail.”