By Cheré Coen | Photography courtesy of Woodford Reserve
The quintessential Southern cocktail associated with bourbon and horse racing has a long and celebrated history.
The secret is in the muddling.
That’s what the representative of Woodford Reserve distillery instructed a group of food and travel writers on a tour of Churchill Downs, home to the celebrated horse race known as the Kentucky Derby. We were being served mint juleps in traditional silver julep cups, garnishes of mint leaves springing out the top while learning the history of the famed horse track. Not a fan of mint juleps, I listened intently because what I was drinking changed my opinion of the sweet Southern cocktail.
Woodford Reserve, a Kentucky distiller of fine whiskeys, is the “official bourbon of the Kentucky Derby.” Almost 120,000 mint juleps are served annually over the two-day period of Kentucky Oaks and Kentucky Derby weekend at Churchill Downs Racetrack in Louisville, says Elizabeth McCall, Woodford’s assistant master distiller.
The sweet drink can be traced back to colonial Virginia, where the addition of mint to a number of spirits helped to mask the medicinal taste, according to Jerry Slater, author of “The Southern Foodways Alliance Guide to Cocktails.”
The drink soon found favor among Southerners and it’s believed was served at Churchill Downs when it opened in 1875.
“Our ancestors brought with them their stills and their horses,” says McCall. “They were drinking and racing, so bourbon and horses have been connected as a social intercourse for several generations. The first mention of a mint julep was in 1816 actually, when it was awarded as a racing trophy somewhere in the Lexington area. In fact, we have it on record that mint juleps were served at the very first Derby on May 17, 1875. By 1938, it had become a staple at the Derby, and Churchill Downs made it the signature drink, selling them in celebratory glasses.”
Woodford Reserve became the presenting sponsor of the Kentucky Derby in 2018, but the brand has been involved in the most famous of horse races for more than 20 years, says McCall.
“Each year, Woodford Reserve releases a one-liter Kentucky Derby bottle featuring the work of an artist selected to shine their perspective on the event,” she explains. “This year Louisville artist Richard Sullivan, a former Atlanta Braves baseball player, created a stunning watercolor image of thoroughbreds as they thunder down the stretch. It was designed as a complement to last year’s Derby bottle artwork, which Sullivan also created. This year we released our 22nd edition.”
In addition, Woodford Reserve offers its annual charitable program, the $1,000 Mint Julep, to raise money for local and national charities that are important to the organization, McCall adds.
But, back to that muddling.
I’ve found poorly made mint juleps overly sweet and tasting akin to a badly sugared iced tea. The key, our Woodford representative insisted—and McCall seconds—is muddling the fresh mint at the bottom of the glass, letting the herb’s oils emerge and coat the inside of the glass or julep cup.
“What makes a great mint julep is quality, simple ingredients,” McCall insists. “The Woodford Reserve mint julep is made with three simple ingredients: Woodford Reserve Kentucky Straight Bourbon, simple syrup, and fresh mint leaves. The key is to express the essential oils from the mint and rub them inside the glass. To the same glass, add your simple syrup, bourbon and crushed ice. Stir all ingredients together, and garnish with more ice and fresh mint.”
Woodford Reserve Mint Julep
3 fresh mint leaves
2 ounces bourbon whiskey
1/2 ounce simple syrup
Directions: Express the essential oils in the mint and rub them inside the glass. Add bourbon, simple syrup, and crushed ice. Stir.