- By Arianna Auber American-Statesman Staff
Kentucky culture comes to life in Austin once a year when we like to dress — and drink — like we’re watching the races at Churchill Downs (this year on May 6). Women look elegant in extravagant hats, men dapper in seersucker suits, while everyone clutches a frosty metal cup stacked tall with ice and fragrant green leaves.
Inside the cup, of course, is the mint julep, the official drink of the Kentucky Derby.
With crushed ice, sugar, mint leaves and the bourbon that Kentucky specializes in, the julep seems like a simple enough concoction. But for a budding home bartender looking to impress as the host of a Derby Day party, the sweet taste of the mint julep can seem off if it’s not prepared correctly.
“You’re not just throwing mint and ice in a glass with bourbon and going, ‘There you go,’” said Jason Stevens, the beverage director of La Corsha Hospitality Group.
He developed a version of the julep for La Corsha’s most recent project: running the food and beverage programs at Mattie’s at Green Pastures, a historic South Austin restaurant that opened in a Victorian farmhouse in 1946 and recently underwent a revamp that preserved much of its Southern charm.
The Green Pastures Julep, served in a vintage silver cup from the 1960s, features house-made peach brandy in addition to fresh mint, Woodford Reserve bourbon and raw sugar. Peach isn’t typically added to the classic julep — unless you’re making a nearly forgotten riff called the Georgia Mint Julep — but Stevens discovered during research that Green Pastures used to make its own peach brandy and decided to add that piece of history to the new drink.
“There was no way a mint julep wasn’t consumed on that porch at some point,” he said.
He’s probably right: The mint julep was a staple drink of the South well before it became the official race cocktail of the Kentucky Derby in 1939, but it reached new heights of popularity thanks to its exclusivity at Churchill Downs.
Before that, juleps — which cocktail historian David Wondrich has called “the first true American drink,” with origins as far back as colonial Virginia in 1770 — were used “medicinally,” as a pick-me-up for farmers. They were made with imported gin, rum and brandy until American-made whiskey found its footing, and they didn’t always have ice.
Once they did become an ice-cold potion, drinking juleps became “a way of showing status. It was all about showing off your wealth because ice was once a commodity, and you’d have a servant chip away at it. And not everyone had the silver or pewter cup to drink out of,” Four Seasons bartender Steven Green said.
The hotel regularly throws Derby Day parties and will again this year, so Green has made his share of juleps and, like Stevens, can regale guests with history about the cocktail. Both barmen acknowledge that there are multiple ways of making a classic mint julep, although everyone who makes them has a favored recipe.
“A lot of Southern cocktails are about rote and ritual,” Stevens said. “You’ll find a lot of historical texts about mint juleps — that they were a way for a young man to come into the new social scene, by demonstrating his mint julep recipe to everyone. That would kind of show his worth. But he might be this Kentucky gentleman making it one way, and he might meet a Georgia gentleman making it another way and get offended. People would come to blows over mint julep recipes.”
It’s hard to imagine that happening now. Still, there are some do’s and don’ts if you’re going to make a mint julep on Derby Day.
First, choose spearmint leaves over peppermint leaves, and make sure you have a small metal cup on hand. Having a metal versus glass container, Green said, is important so that the drink gets properly cold and stays that way.
Then you must decide how you’re going to incorporate both the mint and the sugar.
“There are a lot of variations you can do,” said Brent Elliott, head distiller at Four Roses Bourbon in Kentucky. “Some people muddle the mint, some people simply bruise the mint and some people create a syrup with the mint and sugar and some water prior to the making of the cocktail. If you’re going to keep (the mint and sugar) separate, you can either make the simple syrup or just add the sugar later — a fine sugar versus granulated.”
Green prefers to muddle, dropping mint leaves into the bottom of the cup with either simple syrup or dissolved sugar and then adding ice and bourbon (Maker’s Mark, in his case). At the May 6 Four Seasons Derby Day party, the Lobby Bar will offer the traditional julep and variations including a Blackberry Basil Julep.
Stevens makes the fruity Green Pastures Julep a little differently.
“We take fresh mint and steep it in the Woodford Reserve. Then we blend it together with raw sugar,” he said, noting that he adds the mixture to the peach brandy and the ice when building the cocktail.
However you do it, make sure you’ve got extra mint leaves for garnish and aroma.
Elliott’s Louisville distillery hosts a mint julep competition called the Rose Julep Contest a couple months before the Kentucky Derby, enlisting bartenders to come up with creative riffs. The judges’ choice winner at this year’s showdown featured Four Roses Single Barrel with creme de menthe, creme de cacao and coffee liqueur and was garnished with Andes mints in addition to the usual mint leaves.
“It’s always really fun to see what people come up with,” he said.
At the end of the day, make the mint julep according to your own preferences. Come up with your own special recipe, like the high society of old.
And don’t forget — the mint julep is a deceptive little drink.
“There’s about 1 ounce of simple syrup to 2 ounces of bourbon in there. And some recipes call for even higher amounts of bourbon, up to 3 or 4 ounces,” Green said. “You wouldn’t know how stiff it is because the sugar hides it. But it’s a great party drink for the derby. You’ve got all the hats and the dresses and the fancy food, everyone’s all dressed up, and the julep goes along with that. It provides the fun one day out of the year.”