The official drink of tomorrow’s Kentucky Derby is the Kentucky Mint Julep, a drink that includes muddled mint leaves, sugar, ice and about two shots of bourbon served in the glass of your choice, but it’s supposed to be consumed from a silver or pewter cup. It’s a safe assumption that thousands of people will consume a variation of this drink tomorrow.
"Kentucky Colonel" Joe Nickell is a prominent author of over 30 books. Though now living in Buffalo, he’s a born Kentuckian with a Ph. D in English from UK, and in 2003 published The Kentucky Mint Julep, a culmination of his research into the history of the quintessential derby drink.
Chad Lampe spoke with Nickell, about the lore and legend of how the julep might have came to be and the proper recipe of this famed Kentucky drink.
Nickell didn’t publish the book The Kentucky Mint Julep until 2003, but he says the interest to start his research was sparked by a memento from Kentucky.
“When I had lived in Kentucky and had gotten my degrees there, and was teaching at the University of Kentucky, I was on the board of the Historical Confederation of Kentucky,” said Nickell. “When I got my job to come here to Buffalo to be Center of Inquiry to be senior research fellow, I was given an engraved julep, in lieu of a plaque. I took it with me and it languished in a cupboard, it was on my desk as a pencil holder. And one day I was putting in a home bar, and I realized I was ashamed of myself because I really didn’t know that much about mint juleps, and so the rest, as they say, is history.”
The mint julep recipe is quite simple: two cups sugar and water, sprigs of fresh mint, two shots of Kentucky bourbon, served in a pewter cup with crushed ice. Some people find it difficult to drink bourbon straight, and the mint julep provides a more comfortable alternative. Nickell says the idea of sweetening a strong drink to become potable has been around for a very long time.
“It’s Persian, from the word julab, which means rosewater," said Nickell. "Different languages picked that word up, and eventually julep become the term for sweetened water that you would add to medicine to take the medicine taste off of something. Interestingly enough, our soda pops like Coca-Cola, 7-Up and Pepsi and all of these began as health drinks. They were using sweetener, carbonation and flavored water to make medicine palatable. And there’s of course a scandalous suggestion from someone that the taste of Kentucky whiskey was so bad they had to flavor it with something.”
The first rudimentary form of a mint julep would have been made with whiskey, not bourbon as we know it today. Nickell says one of his favorite stories he included in his book concerned Elijah Craig, and the legend of the creation of bourbon.
“In about 1789, Elijah Craig needing some barrels for his whiskey making, and remember this was reverend Elijah Craig, Baptist minister, but also whiskey maker,” said Nickell. “Legend says he needed some extra barrels for his flourishing distillery and to make some that had been used for something else he charred them out so he could clean and reuse them. Somehow he learned that the whiskey made in those barrels gave a more mellow taste and more caramel color. This is legend, not history, but somehow that spread to Bourbon County and came to be known as Bourbon County whiskey and was taken down to New Orleans where there were connoisseurs of such things. The people began to distinguish that better kind of whiskey simply as bourbon.”
Nickell’s book is filled with classic julep tales, including one from Kentucky editorial journalist and Congressman Henry Watterson.
“Watterson came up with this recipe to make correct mint julep: in one glass you fill it with fine bourbon, and in the other you fill it with the rest of the ingredients, the mint, the sugar and the water,” said Nickell. “And then he said you push that glass aside and drink the first.
Each year, almost 120,000 Mint Juleps are served over the Derby Weekend at Churchill Downs Racetrack. That equals up to a requirement of more than 10,000 bottles of Ready-to-Serve-Cocktail, 1,000 pounds of freshly harvested mint and 60,000 pounds of ice.
In the book, Nickell's list includes numerous recipes for classic juleps to modern variations, non-alcohol variants and his own tips for the “perfect” mint julep:
- Use only good Kentucky bourbon
- Instead of granulated sugar, use superfine, which dissolves more readily
- Serve the drink in a silver or pewter goblet or julep cup, which will frost much better than a glass
- Pre-chill the cup thoroughly before mixing the julep
- Use crushed or shaved ice, and stir rapidly to frost the cup
- Use a short straw (if you use one at all) so that the mint’s aroma can be savored as the drink is sipped
- When serving, avoid touching the sides of the frosted cup and leaving unsightly smudges
“I don’t encourage people to drink, but if they do, mint juleps are fine in moderation and they’re meant to be sipped very slowly," said Nickell. "If they don’t drink, you could still make a fine iced tea using the mint julep recipe and just substituting ice tea for the bourbon and you can garnish it and flavor it just like the bourbon. Perfectly healthy for teetotalers.
"There are many, many recipes for mint julep and some better than others and of course Colonel Nickell’s is highly recommended, with complete impartiality of course. There are so many recipes, but since it is made with two shots of bourbon, once you’ve had a couple it really doesn’t matter how you make it.”