The first week of May has us here at Zelda & Scout in intense party prep mode. This Saturday, we dust off our wide-brim hats and our fascinators, and pull out our many years’ worth of glassware, and make some probably-less-than-stellar decisions regarding both gambling and inebriation. Because the first Saturday in May brings the Kentucky Derby, which at Churchill Downs means the consumption of hundreds of thousands of mint juleps.
And sure there are people who will tell you that mint juleps are gross, and taste like soap, and are only good on Derby. But we are staunch defenders of the julep tradition and its importance as a truly Kentuckian drink, no matter what some articles in the course of this research might like to suggest. Most agree that while the julep probably wasn’t invented in Kentucky, (though the lore does state we can lay claim to another classic bourbon cocktail — the old fashioned — so our whiskey bona fides still check out), since its inception, the great Commonwealth has become its one true home.
The mint julep has been the official drink of the Kentucky Derby since 1938, but the julep has a long and storied history before that. In the 18th century, “julep” was a general term that applied to a number of sugar-based cocktails popular during the Revolutionary War period. Often these sugary elixirs were used as means of masking the taste when ingesting medicine…or you know just alcohol, which was also medicine. It could be made with a number of spirits: rum, gin, brandy etc. But bourbon whiskey is what stuck.
The word “julep” itself is originally derived from the Spanish julepe, which in turn comes from the Persian root gulab meaning rosewater. Thus julep was applied to any drinks in which sweetness was the dominant note. The addition of mint to what we now recognize as our mint julep may have originally been intended to soothe stomach pains, but there is no definitive proof.
The julep slowly changed from a medicinal mixture into one of leisure. As its popularity increased, it became a status symbol, largely because of the ice. Ice was, rather ironically, a hot commodity at the time: Only those with a certain amount of wealth had access to ice houses, much less the ability to crush the ice as fine as we know it today. By the time people began serving their juleps in silver cups, it was officially the drink of the elite.
So you see the julep is an old drink, and a simple one: just sugar, bourbon whiskey and mint (you can find Zelda’s tried and true recipe here, along with laments of New York juleps gone wrong). And while it may not have been born in the Bluegrass state, it did come into its own in Kentucky, as a way to imbibe in the local libation of choice: bourbon. Eventually it was introduced to our nation’s capital, legend has it, by Kentucky Senator Henry Clay, and once the politicians got a hold of it, we were off to the races. And though some may associate it with lazy Southern afternoons, sweating daintily on verandas, we Kentuckians know better.
The julep is a city drink, one that gained fame at the bars of the ritziest hotels in the South’s grandest cities, and as such, it is a drink of action. It’s the drink you hold aloft with one hand as your horse crosses the finish line to win your big bet of the day. It’s the drink you probably spill a little of in your haste to hold onto your hat as you run across a muddy infield. It’s the perfect drink for a hot and humid Saturday in May, whether you’re in the grandstand, the infield, or even on a roof somewhere in Brooklyn.
The julep helps us lean into the decadence, with our fancy cups and our perfect sprigs of mint garnish. It helps us embrace the depravity as we make some questionable decisions after our third, or fourth, or fifth julep of the evening (wait, what do you mean it’s only 4:30?). There will always be those who claim it’s too sweet, or that it tastes like medicine. There will be those who can only stomach it, begrudgingly, on Derby Day. But for Zelda & Scout, whether it’s the traditional Early Times or the updated Old Forester, on every day of the year, the mint julep tastes like home.