Now that Derby days are here again, aficionados of horses, whiskey, and drinking in general are dusting off their pewter mint julep glasses and breaking out the bourbon.
With good reason—the chilled cocktail has been the signature drink of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs since 1938, and well over 100,000 mint juleps are served at the event each year. They’ve been enjoyed by Southerners (William Faulkner was especially fond of them) for generations, with mentions of the potation appearing in America as early as the 18th century.
The true origins of the mint julep, however, stretch back considerably further. The word “julep” derives from the ancient Persian gulab, used to denote a sort of sweetened rosewater (if you’ve ever had gulab jamun at an Indian restaurant, it’s made with just such a syrup). In classical Arabic, the word became julab, only to cross over into Latin as julapium. Across medieval Europe, variants of the name would come to express a variety of medicinal syrups, generally flavored with herbal essences of some kind. The 17th-century poet John Milton described “spirits of balm and fragrant syrups” called “juleps,” and by 1755, English dictionaries were defining the term as an “extemporaneous form of medicine, made of simple and compound water sweetened, serving for a vehicle to other forms not so convenient to take alone.”
So how did a centuries-old medicine transform into a deliciously minty and modern cocktail? Well, as is the case with many of our most treasured beverages—Coca-Cola and G&Ts among them—what began as a restorative tonic was quickly adopted for more recreational purposes. By the early 1800s, the practice of using sugar water and Mentha spicata (a.k.a. spearmint) to render spirituous liquors more palatable was commonplace in Virginia. As many of those early Virginians crossed the Appalachians into Kentucky, it was only natural that they would begin making their restorative juleps with the most plentiful liquor at hand: bourbon. The drinks were consumed at any social, warm-weather gathering that merited a little extra cocktail-based cheer, celebrated horse races most prominent among them.
So when you take that first frosty sip of your mint julep in celebration of the Kentucky Derby, enjoy it. It’s been a drink one thousand years in the making. And hopefully all that history (not to mention a little luck with the ponies) will only make it that much sweeter.