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May Is For Mint Juleps

There is perhaps no better drink to feature in the month of May than the official drink of the Kentucky Derby—the glorious and glamorous Mint Julep. Just in case you don’t know what the Kentucky Derby is, it’s a thoroughbred race (considered “America’s Greatest Race”) which has been held annually in Louisville, Kentucky in the month of May since 1875. In the South, given the ties to this great race, the Mint Julep is a particularly popular drink, but it has been popular in the North as well.

Here, we’ll dive into a brief history of the Mint Julep, and offer a traditional recipe for you to try at home as you celebrate the Kentucky Derby or the wonderful month of May.

While the Mint Julep as we know it today was referenced in print as early as 1803, it is thought that U.S. senator Henry Clay made this refreshing cocktail popular while at the Round Robin Bar in Washington, D.C. back in 1850 (Will-Weber, 2017). Given the drinks core ingredients—sugar, bourbon, mint and crushed ice—this drink recipe was very likely inspired by European medicine in the Middle East, where sugar was often combined with spices, herbs and spirits (Freedman, 2022). 

It’s difficult to track the exact origins of the traditional Mint Julep recipe, but popular culture references over the years shed light on the prevalence of this adult drink. In the early 1900’s, President Theodore Roosevelt was said to enjoy a Mint Julep riff after a game of tennis (his version used rye whiskey and brandy) (Will-Weber, 2017). There were several references to the cocktail in The Great Gatsby, which was published in 1925, as well as in Gone With The Wind, which was released in 1939 (Will-Weber, 2017). 

Many years later, in 1983, it rose to greater fame as the official drink of the Kentucky Derby. Tens of thousands of fans gather to spectate at the Kentucky Derby each year, most of whom you’ll see imbibing on at least one Mint Julep while donning elaborate, oversized hats and vibrant bowties. In 1999, Woodford Reserve was named “The Official Bourbon of the Kentucky Derby,” sparking yet another rise in popularity for the Mint Julep (Freedman, 2022). 

The traditional Mint Julep recipe is a simple combination of sugar (simple syrup), a quality bourbon, fresh mint leaves, and a lot of crushed ice served in a silver julep cup. Here’s a Mad River Distillers Mint Julep recipe you can try at home:

Mad River Distillers Straight Bourbon and a julep cup filled with ice and mint on a table

Mad Mint Julep
-2 oz Mad River Distillers Straight Bourbon 
-1/2 oz simple syrup
-10 mint leaves
-crushed ice
-3 mint sprigs for garnish

In a silver julep cup, add the simple syrup and 10 mint leaves. Using a muddler, gently press the mint into the simple syrup to release the oils, being careful not to tear the mint. Next, pour the Straight Bourbon over the muddled mint. Add crushed ice to the cup, filling until there is a slight mound at the top. Garnish with the 3 mint sprigs. 

Folded Lewis Bag on a table with a wooden ballet on top

A tip: If you really enjoy the taste of fresh mint, take one muddled mint leaf and rub it round the rim of the cup before adding the Straight Bourbon. Also, it’s worth noting that crushed ice is an important feature of the cocktail. For some, it’s so important that the Lewis bag was created—a bag that contains ice while it’s crushed with a mallet, like the one pictured here (currently available at our Burlington Tasting Room).

While the above is a more traditional recipe using our Vermont-made Straight Bourbon, you can always experiment to create a recipe that speaks to your personal preferences. For example, you may prefer less or more sugar or mint. You can even find Mint Julep riffs that incorporate pineapple juice, or that use rye whiskey and brandy as President Roosevelt once did. Try some variations until you find the recipe that works best for you, and most importantly, enjoy!

Written by Brianne Lucas and published on May 7th, 2022

Will-Weber, M. (2017, April 10). A Complete History of the Mint Julep. Town & Country. Retrieved May 4, 2022, from

Freedman, B. (2022, April 21). Untangling the Complex History of One of America’s Most Popular Cocktails—The Mint Julep. Food & Wine. Retrieved May 5, 2022, from

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