What comes in sets of four hooves, goes in circles, wears big hats, and has its own special drink? (No, this is not a joke about your awkward relatives.) It’s one of the most prestigious sporting events in the country: the Kentucky Derby!
Since 1875, the Kentucky Derby has fascinated horse racing enthusiasts. Affectionately called the “Run for the Roses” and “The Most Exciting Two Minutes In Sports,” the Kentucky Derby is held on the first Saturday in May and is celebrated at “Derby Parties” from coast to coast. Tradition is key here, and one of the most celebrated traditions is the official drink of the Derby: the mighty Mint Julep.
In fact, almost 120,000 Mint Juleps are served over the two-day period of Kentucky Oaks and Kentucky Derby weekend at Churchill Downs Racetrack in Louisville, Kentucky. That’s a lot of mint and bourbon.
An Old Southern Tradition
The drink is clearly a Southern passion, just like fellow Southern food pimento cheese (which you can also pair with a Mint Julep). In a letter written in 1906, Lt. Gen. Simon Bolivar Buckner, Jr. actually refused to give the recipe to the superintendent of the US Military Academy, calling the cocktail “the nectar of the gods,” and declaring “it is a rite that must not be entrusted to a novice, a statistician, nor a Yankee!” Quite the opinion about a little ole drink recipe! Times have changed but the tradition continues.
What’s in a Name?
Although it’s linked to the South and the Kentucky Derby, the Julep’s name has its roots in the Arab world. The Julep began centuries ago as an Arabic drink called the “julab,” which was made from water and rose petals. As the julab migrated to the Mediterranean, that region's indigenous zesty mint replaced the rose petals.
The Mint Julep has been served in the South since the early 1700s, and Churchill Downs began mixing them in 1875. Mint Juleps became the track's signature libation in 1938 when management began charging 75 cents for the drink and the small glass vessel it came in. Despite some of the $2,000 limited edition Mint Julep packages sold to commemorate the derby, the drink and glass combo now cost $11 at the event.
Join the Fun: Uncle Terry's Perfect Mint Julep Recipe
What exactly is an Uncle Terry Mint Julep? It’s a perfect adult thirst quencher with a Kentucky bourbon base.
- 1.5 ounce Bourbon
- 1.5 ounce Simple Syrup
- 1 (4-inch) cocktail straw or coffee stirrer
- Fresh mint sprig to garnish
How to make one perfect Mint Julep:
- Fill glass with crushed ice*
- Pour 1.5 ounces of Bourbon Whiskey (Traditional selection: Woodford Reserve)
- Add 1.5 ounces of Simple Syrup *
- Garnish with a couple sprigs of mint
*You can add mint to the simple syrup for more minty flavor or muddle the mint in the glass before you add the ice.
Food Pairings with a Mint Julep
If you’re watching the Kentucky Derby from home, you have plenty of fun food options to pair with your perfect Mint Julep.
For snacking, these Southern staples are hard to beat:
- Bacon deviled eggs
- Cheese fondue with beer and bourbon
- Horseradish pimento cheese
- Fried black-eyed peas
If you’re having a bigger affair, go with some more substantial options so you and your guests can settle in and cheer on the races:
- Grilled pimento cheese sandwiches with apple-cherry chutney
- Mustard-herb buttermilk biscuits with ham
- Fried chicken biscuits
Don’t forget to end with a seriously Southern dessert:
Now that you have the perfect Mint Julep recipe and food pairings to boot, you’re off to the races!