How the Mint Julep Became Drink of the Derby and the Inspiration for the Modern Day Straw
154 years before Churchill Downs - the official location of the Kentucky Derby - named the mint julep its official drink in 1938, the julep was prescribed for "sickness at the stomach, with frequent retching, and, at times, a difficulty of swallowing." Several years later, an appearance of a mint julep in print came in a book by John Davis published in London in 1803, where it was described as "a dram of spirituous liquor that has mint steeped in it, taken by Virginians of a morning." However, Davis did not specify which spirit was used.
Both bourbon and genever gin were popular base spirits for the mint julep, but gin faded in popularity, and bourbon has become the southern belle of the julep ball.
Each year almost 120,000 juleps are served at Churchill Downs over the two-day period of the Kentucky Oaks and the Kentucky Derby, virtually all of them in specially made Kentucky Derby collectible glasses.
However, the history of the julep is not only steeped in southern derby charm and mint leaves. Back in the 1880's, Marvin Stone, a Washington, D.C., resident, was drinking a mint julep with what was then the standard of straws: a stalk of rye grass. Stone hated the gritty residue the straw left in his drink as it broke down, according to the Smithsonian Institution’s Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation. So he made his own drinking device by wrapping strips of paper around a pencil. After removing the writing implement, he glued the paper strips together. And thus was born the modern drinking straw.
In fact, a proper julep should require a straw. Think of the drink as a bourbon snow cone, piled high with freshly crushed ice in a pewter cradle. Below is our recipe for the perfect mint julep. Happy Derby!
- 4 oz bourbon or rye whiskey
- ½ oz simple syrup
Tools: Lewis bag, muddler
Glass: Julep cup or rocks glass
Garnish: Mint sprig
Place 12-15 mint leaves in the bottom of a Julep cup or a rocks glass. Add the simple syrup and gently press the mint leaves to release the oils. Add the bourbon or rye. Place a handful of ice in a Lewis bag and crush with a muddler or hammer. You can also use a food processor to crush the ice, but crushed is key to the drink. Fill the cup until it has the appearance of a snow cone. Garnish and serve with a straw.
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