Mint Julep Wars

Posted on 3 min read 71 views

Under 21 years of age? Alcohol not your cup of tea? Iced tea is a traditional Derby beverage, too. Some folks call iced tea “the house wine of the South.” My grandmother used to make it with mint, too. I fervently believe the same care can go into making iced tea, as well.

The sad truth is that a bad mint julep can taste like the worst cough syrup from your childhood before it scalds your throat and makes you wheeze.

I’m not about to cast aspersions on the juleps served in souvenir collectible glasses at Churchill Downs on Derby Day, except I saw them make ’em back in ’83. Workers had a whole table full of glasses filled with ice and a sprig of mint onto which they poured bourbon and sugar water, assembly line-style — zip-zip — down and across the rows of glasses.

In fairness, the hard-working folks at Churchill have to make a lot of ’em.

So, let’s just say that, at home, you don’t have to settle for a mass-produced mint julep. All you need are four ingredients.

And that’s all that’s simple about it.

Fresh mint, shaved ice, sugar, bourbon and water

Some purists go as far as insisting on a silver julep cup for drinking a correctly-made mint julep. Others find a glass acceptable.

Food writer Mark Kurlansky for Time shows how even subtle changes in preparation techniques can make a difference in this video.

Kurlansky showing the subleties in this video from the Time magazine site.

Note: he uses silver cups. And pours with a liberal hand. His mint julep will be super-strong.

Here’s another basic mint julep, a British hand-crafted version. I like the idea of chilling the glass with ice.

Click here if you can’t see the embedded video for the British version of the basic mint julep.

See? Care to the point of ritual for the basics ingredients – bourbon, mint, sugar, ice, water.

But you don’t need a fancy bar like you see in these previous videos to make a good mint julep. What did they do, say, in 1939?

This next video looks like part of an oral history taken in a family living room where we can all kick back and be comfy. You’ll have to sit through some chit-chat for about one minute and twenty seconds before the recipe starts. And you’ll have to turn up the volume to hear the soft-spoken southern gent.

Can’t see the embedded video about how these guys made their mint juleps in Virginia? Click here.

You’re probably picking up on a theme. Four ingredients, coddled into “playing nice” together.

My simplified version?  Two points – Don’t Be Cheap and Don’t Be Stupid:

  • Don’t be cheap. Use good bourbon.
  • Don’t be cheap II. Use lots of mint, the freshest you can find.
  • Don’t be cheap III. Use spring water from a bottle. Cold.
  • Don’t be cheap IV. Use plenty of ice. Preferably made from spring water.
  • Don’t be stupid I. Sip. Don’t chug.
  • Don’t be stupid II. Don’t even think of driving home after even one of those suckers.


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  • Suzanne Adair
    April 13, 2011

    Hi Rhonda, thanks for the shout-out re: my Feature Day on Blog Tour de Force next Thursday. And what an interesting blog post you have here. I never realized there was so much bourbon/whiskey in a mint julep. Whew, “liberal hand” is an understatement for the Kurlansky Method. I’d be under the table after 1/4 of one of his creations.

    Suzanne Adair

  • Rhonda Lane
    April 13, 2011

    That Kurlansky julep must kick like a mule. =:-o I imagine. I’m afraid to try it. Might as well just drink the bourbon straight. 🙂 Thanks for stopping by, Suzanne.

  • Susie Blackmon
    April 14, 2011

    Wow. Grab a bottle of bourbon and a sprig of mint indeed re Kurlansky, but I love the historical aspects of traditional ‘remedies.’ It is amazing how good a mint julep tastes on Derby Day. Really enjoyed this post!

  • Rhonda Lane
    April 14, 2011

    Could Kurlansky’s method be referred to as a “dry” Julep? 😉 Like a dry martini?? 🙂 A dry julep just doesn’t sound as cool as a “dry martini,” though. Thanks for saying “hello,” Susie. I’m so pleased you enjoyed the post. It was fun to write.