The Perfect Mint Julep

Whether you’re headed to Kentucky and are truly “off to the races” or you’re planning your celebration at home, you will want to dive into the culture that makes Derby Day so popular.

Written, Styled & Photographed by Kara Mickelson

Whether you’re headed to Kentucky and are truly “off to the races” or you’re planning your celebration at home, you will want to dive into the culture that makes Derby Day so popular. That means, among other things, getting acquainted with the iconic mint julep.

There are the flamboyant fashion statements and a type of energy and enthusiasm that harkens back to earlier times. While the races draw the crowds, it’s easy to get sidetracked by the heady scent of mint and bourbon. Center stage: the mint julep—the official race cocktail, representing Southern hospitality and the glamour, pomp and circumstance of the occasion.

Served in traditional sterling silver julep cups with crushed or shaved ice, the mint julep is essential to the Derby festivities, while not necessarily a local favorite. There is something about the fresh mint and bourbon that sets the festive mood.

And when properly fashioned, it is a thirst- quenching, refreshing drink with a hint of mint on a hot Southern day. Or unfortunately, when poorly crafted, the mint julep is something similar to overly sweet mouthwash.

For some it’s not so much the exact amount of mint or bourbon or ice—as that can be attributed to personal taste—but more the ritual and finesse in making the drink that makes all the difference. So crank up the tunes, put on “One Mint Julep” by The Clovers and get to work.

And while you are setting the scene and practicing your bartending skills for a Derby Day fete, be sure to research the infamous Hot Brown—a Kentucky staple and a good fallback when a little too much bourbon has coursed through your veins. The thick Mornay cheese sauce and white bread—layered with sliced turkey and topped with Parmesan cheese, bacon and tomato—is the perfect counterpoint to a day of indulgence … or after a day perfecting your julep.


Perfect Mint Juleps
Serves 1
(Make these from scratch per request)
21⁄2 teaspoons demerara, turbinado or coconut palm sugar (or for a larger group, 21⁄2 teaspoons simple syrup)
splash or two of water, to taste
5 to 6 fresh mint leaves (tear extra-large leaves) 12 ounces crushed or shaved ice to overfill cup 2 jiggers or 3 ounces high-proof Kentucky bourbon
garnish: fresh mint sprig, lime wedge and strawberry (optional)
fruit additions: fresh muddled strawberries, raspberries, peaches

Add sugar or simple syrup, splash of water and mint leaves to pewter, silver or copper julep cup. Give it a quick stir, then fill half full with crushed or shaved ice. Pour bourbon over ice and stir with a bar spoon or swizzle stick until a frost appears on the outside of the cup. Top julep cup with more ice and add a sprig of mint and a lime wedge or fruit garnish.

Simple Syrup
2 cups water
2 cups turbinado or coconut palm sugar

Stir sugar and water in a saucepan over medium heat until sugar is dissolved. Remove from heat and cool. Chill in refrigerator.

Tips: Whack the mint sprig on the back of your hand to release the oils. Skip muddling the mint and instead gently stir the mint with the bourbon and sugar to release the oils from the leaves and minimize the medicinal flavor from over-muddling. Julep cups keep your drink chilled and add a nice touch.

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