How to make a classic mint julep recipe – and 2 refreshing variations

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(Photos by Rey Lopez for The Washington Post; food styling by Lisa Cherkasky for The Washington Post)
(Photos by Rey Lopez for The Washington Post; food styling by Lisa Cherkasky for The Washington Post)

If we’re playing a word association game and I ask you what word comes to mind when I say “julep”, chances are your answer will be “mint”. The two words seem so fused together – like peanut butter and jelly – that you might be wondering if there’s another one?

There are quite a few, actually.

The mint julep, which has been the official drink of the Kentucky Derby since the late 1930s, depending on who you ask, is by far the most famous of the bunch. Over 120,000 cocktails are typically served between the Friday and Saturday derby events.

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I’m sharing a traditional mint julep recipe below, but I’ve also found two other tasty julep recipes, including a low-alcohol one, that might surprise and delight you.

While the juleps are likely to be garnished with a generous sprig or two of mint, this family of drinks goes far beyond that muddled herb, simple syrup and bourbon served on a mound of pebbles of ice.

In fact, juleps have an ancient and storied history dating back to the Sasanian Empire around 2,000 years ago in Persia, which began with the gulab, a rosewater bath for imperial princesses. Over time, the word gulab began to be used to describe health elixirs. Eventually the word morphed into julab, and when the drink was introduced to the Mediterranean, rose water was replaced by native mint.

Juleps, which arrived in America in the 18th century, were first eaten warm, fortified with rum or brandy, sweetened with honey syrup and flavored with fresh mint. Described as a “dram of spirits containing mint, taken by Virginians in the morning”, julep was also considered a preventative tonic for general health. And as ice became more available to wealthier drinkers, it was added to the drink to thin it out and cool it down.

Eventually, bourbon, which was produced and distilled domestically, replaced rum and brandy, as British import duties made these two spirits prohibitively expensive. With Kentucky’s vast cornfields and hard water, the state eventually became synonymous with spirit. Supposedly, it was Kentucky Senator Henry Clay who introduced the mint julep to Washington, D.C., in the 1830s at the Round Robin Bar in what is now the Willard Intercontinental Hotel, which still serves his recipe to this day.

The classic mint julep is a strong drink that mellows over time. Alba Huerta, owner of the Julep Bar in Houston and author of a book of the same name, suggests bourbon in evidence from the mid-1980s to 1990s so that when the drink sits on a mound of ice, it doesn’t become too diluted while you sip it.

In Derby Cocktail Tropical, bourbon is still the liquor of choice, but it’s brightened up with tangy sunny-tasting pineapple and lemon juices for a more tropical take on the drink.

An Italian orange syrup gives depth and balance to this mocktail

And if you want to go the low ABV route, which would be my go-to on a sweltering day, try the Cynar Julep. With slightly bitter notes of a little grapefruit soda and an Italian amaro made from artichokes, it’s as refreshing as it is sophisticated.

So the next time you sip a julep, consider its adaptability and time travel. Alleged health claims dismissed, the cocktail’s refreshing — and perhaps even restorative — abilities are nonetheless diminished.

Scale and get nutritional information and a printable version of the recipe here.

Bartender and spirits writer Jim Meehan, in his cookbook “The PDT Cocktail Book,” attributes the version he shares to Jerry Thomas’ “Bart-Tender’s Guide,” originally published in 1862. In 1938, the mint julep became the official drink of the Kentucky Derby. If you don’t have a traditional silver julep tumbler, a rocks glass will do. A metal straw makes this drink even more cool and refreshing.

  • 8-10 fresh mint leaves, plus 2-3 extra mint sprigs, for garnish
  • 1/2 ounce simple syrup
  • 2 to 2 1/2 ounces of bourbon
  • Ice, crushed or pebbles

In a chilled julep mug (or rocks glass), gently mash the mint leaves and simple syrup. Add the bourbon (opt for 2 1/2 ounces if you prefer the drink stronger), then fill halfway with crushed ice or pebbles. Using a bar spoon or cocktail stick, stir for about 20 seconds to cool and thin slightly. Add more ice to form a dome on top and garnish with the mint sprigs.

Adapted from “The PDT Cocktail Book” by Jim Meehan (Union Square & Co., 2011).

Scale and get nutritional information and a printable version of the recipe here.

This julep recipe is bursting with tropical flavor, thanks to a crisp, tangy pineapple juice that sweetens the punch of the bourbon. According to cocktail author Adrienne Stillman, this drink, which originated in Colón, Panama, was first recorded by Charles Baker in his “South American Gentleman’s Companion.” If you prefer a stronger drink, aim for the upper limit of the suggested amounts of bourbon; if you like your drink sweeter, aim for a simpler syrup.

  • Ice, crushed or pebbles
  • 2 to 2 1/2 ounces of bourbon
  • 1 ounce unsweetened pineapple juice
  • 1/2 ounce fresh lemon juice
  • 1/2 to 1 teaspoon simple syrup
  • Sprig of fresh mint, to garnish

In a shaker filled with ice, combine bourbon, pineapple juice, lemon juice, simple syrup. Shake vigorously for 15-20 seconds, then strain into a highball glass filled with crushed ice. Decorate with a sprig of mint and serve.

Adapted from “Fiery” by Adrienne Stillman (Phaidon, 2020).

Scale and get nutritional information and a printable version of the recipe here.

This low-alcohol julep is the perfect refreshment on a sweltering day, with a pleasant bitterness imparted by Cynar, an artichoke-based amaro and a touch of grapefruit soda. Cocktail editor Adrienne Stillman writes in her book “Spirited” that this recipe was created at the famous Floreria Atlantico bar in Buenos Aires.

Or buy: Grapefruit soda can be found in well-stocked supermarkets.

  • 3 to 4 fresh mint leaves
  • 1/2 ounce simple syrup
  • 2 ounces of Cynar
  • 1/2 ounce fresh lemon juice
  • Ice, crushed or pebbles
  • 2 ounces grapefruit soda, such as Izze brand (or see VARIATION, below)
  • Grapefruit wedge, for garnish
  • Sprig of fresh mint, to garnish

In a julep mug, rocks glass, or Collins glass, gently mash the mint and simple syrup. Add Cynar and lemon juice, and half fill with crushed ice or pebbles. Stir with a bar spoon to combine. Add club soda, then add more ice to form a crown above the rim. Garnish with a grapefruit wedge and a sprig of mint, add a straw and serve.

VARIATION: In place of grapefruit soda, use 1 ounce of fresh grapefruit juice and 1 1/2 ounces of club soda.

Adapted from “Fiery” by Adrienne Stillman (Phaidon, 2020).

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