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

How to make a classic mint julep recipe - and 2 refreshing variations
(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 which word comes to mind first when I say ‘julep’, it’s a safe bet that your answer will be ‘coin’. The two words seem so fused together — like peanut butter and jelly — that you might be wondering, is there another kind?

There are quite a few, actually.

The mint julep, 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. About 120,000 of the cocktails are usually served between the Friday and Saturday events of the derby.

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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 ABV one, that may surprise and delight you.

While juleps are likely garnished with a hefty sprig or two of mint, this family of drinks goes way beyond that muddled spice, simple syrup, and bourbon served on a mound of pebble ice.

In fact, juleps have an ancient and storied history dating back to the Sassanid Empire about 2000 years ago in Persia, which began with the gulab, a rose water bath for imperial princesses. Over time, the word gulab began to be used to describe health elixirs. Eventually the word changed to julab and when the drink was introduced to the Mediterranean, the rose water was replaced by the native mint.

Reaching America in the 18th century, Juleps were initially consumed warm, spiked with rum or brandy, sweetened with honey syrup, and flavored with muddled mint. Described as a “dram liquor with mint in it, taken by Virginians in the morning,” the julep was also considered a preventative tonic for overall health. And as more ice became available to wealthier drinkers, it was added to the drink for dilution and refreshment.

Eventually, bourbon, which was produced and distilled domestically, replaced rum and brandy, as Britain’s import taxes made those two spirits unaffordable. With Kentucky’s sprawling cornfields and limestone waters, the state eventually became synonymous with the ghost. Presumably it was Kentucky Sen. Henry Clay who introduced the mint julep to Washington, DC, in the 1830s at the Round Robin Bar in what is now the Willard Intercontinental hotel, which serves his recipe to this day.

The classic mint julep is a strong drink that softens with time. Alba Huerta, owner of the Julep bar in Houston and author of a book of the same name, suggests bourbon in the mid-80s to 90s so that if the drink is in a mound of ice, it doesn’t get too diluted as you sip it.

In Derby Cocktail Tropical, bourbon is still the drink of choice, but it’s spiced up with sunny-tasting pineapple and tart lemon juice for a more, well, tropical interpretation of the drink.

An Italian orange syrup gives this alcohol-free cocktail depth and balance

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

So, the next time you drink a julep, consider its adaptability and time travel. Purported health claims dismissed, the cocktail’s refreshing — and perhaps even restorative — properties are no less diminished.

Scale and get nutritional information and a printer-friendly version of the recipe here.

Bartender and liquor writer Jim Meehan, in his cookbook “The PDT Cocktail Book,” credits the version he shares to Jerry Thomas’s “Bart-Tender’s Guide,” which was 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 cup, a stone glass will do. A metal straw makes this cool, refreshing drink stand out even more.

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

In a chilled julep cup (or rock glass), gently mix the mint leaves and simple syrup. Add the bourbon (choose 2 1/2 ounces if you prefer the drink stronger), then fill halfway with crushed ice or pebbled ice. Stir with a bar spoon or stirrer for about 20 seconds to cool and thin slightly. Add more ice to form a dome 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 printer-friendly version of the recipe here.

This julep recipe is packed with tropical flavors, thanks to the clear, sweet and sour pineapple juice, which softens the punch of bourbon. According to cocktail writer Adrienne Stillman, this drink, native to Colón, Panama, was first included by Charles Baker in his “South American Gentleman’s Companion.” If you prefer a stronger drink, aim for the higher end of the suggested amounts of bourbon; if you like a sweeter drink, go for more simple syrup.

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

In a cocktail shaker filled with ice, combine the bourbon, pineapple juice, lemon juice, simple syrup. Shake vigorously for 15 to 20 seconds, then strain into an ice-filled rock glass. Garnish with a sprig of mint and serve.

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

Scale and get nutritional information and a printer-friendly version of the recipe here.

This low-alcohol julep is an ideal refresher on a sweltering day, with a pleasant Cynar bitterness, an artichoke-based amaro and a splash of grapefruit soda. Cocktail writer Adrienne Stillman writes in her book “Spiritual” that this recipe was made at the acclaimed bar Floreria Atlantico in Buenos Aires.

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

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

In a julep cup, rock glass or Collins glass, gently mix the mint and simple syrup. Add the Cynar and lemon juice and fill halfway with crushed ice or pebble ice. Stir with a bar spoon to combine. Add the soda and top with more ice to form a crown over the rim. Garnish with a grapefruit slice and mint sprig, add a straw and serve.

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

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