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Cheers! A mint julep for the Kentucky Derby

A mint julep sitting on a red napkin with a bottle of bourbon in the background
Lester Graham
Michigan Radio
The ingredients are simple. The techniques are the important part of mixing a mint julep.
Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Tammy Coxen uses 100 proof bourbon because the crushed ice means a lot of dilution.

Saturday is the Kentucky Derby. There’s a traditional drink for the “run for the roses.” It’s the mint julep. But finding a well-made mint julep is difficult. So, you should make it yourself.

“The mint julep is all about technique,” said Tammy Coxen of Tammy’s Tastings, adding, “You really want to pay attention while you’re making this drink.”

Even at the Derby, it's hard to find a really good mint julep.

The drink was created in the South, probably in the 1700s. It's traditional to make the drink in a silver cup, but a high ball glass or whatever you have handy will work. 

Be sure to get plenty of mint. You'll use a lot, especially if you want to make the drink for a few friends.

Here are a few tips:

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Don't muddle your mint too much. It should look something like this when you're finished.

  •    When you muddle the mint leaves with simple syrup or sugar, do it gently. If you bruise the mint leaves, you’ll get a bitter taste. (see photo)
  • Make sure you stir your drink with ice until a little frost coats the outside of the glass.
  • Since there’s so much crushed ice in this drink, it might be better to use a higher-proof bourbon. It’s going to get diluted.
  • Before you put your big sprig of mint in as a garnish, smack it against your hand a few times to release the mint aroma.
  • Finally, use a short straw. You’ll want to get your nose right into that mint!

The proportions can be altered. Use more simple syrup or sugar, or use less. Maybe you like a little more bourbon.

Mint Julep

8-10 mint leaves

2 tsp simple syrup (or to taste)

2 oz bourbon

Gently muddle mint leaves with simple syrup in bottom of julep tin or glass. Half fill glass with crushed ice and add bourbon. Stir well. Add more crushed ice and stir until outside of glass is frosty. Top with additional crushed ice. Garnish with a bouquet of mint that you've slapped against your hands a few times to bring out the aroma. Serve with a short straw so you get a good whiff of mint every time you take a sip.

A mint julep in a silver cup with a straw and mint garnish sitting on a red napkin.

Lester Graham reports for The Environment Report. He has reported on public policy, politics, and issues regarding race and gender inequity. He was previously with The Environment Report at Michigan Public from 1998-2010.
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