The mint julep's prime billing during the Kentucky Derby is no accident: The cocktail has been the official drink of the Louisville horse race since 1938. But there's no reason that you should limit yourself to one day to order the julep; a silver cup full of bourbon, sugar and mint over ice is a good patio sipper to take you all the way through summer. And besides, the history of this beverage dates way back beyond the Derby, to an era when cocktails were medicinal and ice was a luxury only the rich could afford.
Ste. Ellie and Colt & Gray bar manager Kevin Burke pegs the drink's rise to the nexus of two technological developments: ice, harvested in the north and brought south in insulated ships, and the drinking straw. "Straws were necessary because everyone had terrible teeth and hygiene," he explains. "They'd have this drink full of crushed ice, and because of tooth infections, the ice would slam into their faces and be incredibly uncomfortable." Burke adds that original julep was a luxury drink, and because of that, it would have been made with brandy, not whiskey, because "it was an aristocratic drink, and brandy is what aristocrats drank."
Eventually, the brandy julep spawned all kinds of other variations, including one with American whiskey, though Burke says that probably wasn't popular before Prohibition. "[A version with American whiskey] would have existed in the mid-nineteenth century, but you would have sold ten times as many genever juleps as American whiskey. American whiskey was a nascent rough-and-tumble product at that point." For further proof, he points to Jerry Thomas's Bartenders Guide, which contains several julep recipes, only one of which is made with whiskey.
Burke says the current incarnation of the drink — American whiskey, sugar, mint and crushed ice — became popular in the 1950s and 1960s, and he draws comparisons with the tiki culture that gained popularity in the same years. "Bourbon julep has this escapist mythology of Slower life, southern plantations and a tall glass of bourbon," he explains. "There's a lot of theater involved in its production, and that's deliberate. The American bar was built around storytellers."
There are also more rules regarding the mint julep than the martini, he says. "There are ways to screw it up. You’ve only got four ingredients, so there's nothing to hide behind. Mint is your only aromatic; it has to be fresh, well grown, well treated — and it has to smell like mint. But mint tastes pretty gross; it has this beautiful aroma, but you want to taste as little as possible mint in the drink. Sugar provides texture, so simple syrup is probably a better option than sugar. Ice is critical — you need smashed, pebbled or crushed. Cubed ice in a mint julep is wrong. It's heretical. It's like putting ice in a Sazerac. I try to not be pedantic, but one is pedantic about the julep."
Burke doesn't muddle his mint; in fact, he says if you're getting strands of mint in your teeth while sipping a julep, someone has made the drink wrong. Instead, he rolls it between his thumbs to release the aromatics, stirs it a bit with ice and simple syrup, and then either buries it under a plug of ice or removes it.
As for the whiskey: "I feel like it should be bourbon," says Burke. "Rye is fine, but rye to me tastes a little leaner. With something this cold and diluted, you want something with big hips and a plumber’s crack. High-proof is better. This is a drink where you really only want to drink one, so reaching for something that’s barrel-proof and special is a good idea. Woodford Reserve is the Kentucky Derby sponsor, and it makes a really delicious julep. That whiskey is pot-stilled, and it lends it oiliness and body. It's not a best pick in other drinks, but it's exactly what you want your bourbon to be in the julep."
If you're making this drink at home, building it in a tin cup isn't crucial, but it does contribute to the escapist lore of the drink. "There's something really beautiful about how the metal glass will frost over if served properly," says Burke. "You could drink a mint julep out of a Capri Sun and it would taste right, but it wouldn’t feel right." If you don't have a tin cup, Burke recommends using the short end of a two-piece cocktail shaker.
To finish the cocktail: "Put a straw in that drink. Men of delicate egos may fear that a straw makes them look effeminate, but then you’ll wear the cocktail instead of drinking it." And top your cocktail with a generous spray of mint, "a porn bush of mint," says Burke. He recommends picking it up at H Mart, where you can get a bushel for cheap. And ice? No shame in stopping by Sonic for a $10 bag, he advises.
There are a number of bars in Denver that will have a Derby Day special on juleps, but fewer that keep this drink on the menu regularly. Here are five bars where you can get a properly made julep here in the Mile High, be it during the races or on your average Tuesday.
Ste. Ellie and Colt & Gray
1553 Platte Street
Burke says he and fellow barman Dwight Long spent one afternoon perfecting their julep, making twenty different versions of the cocktail until they found the perfect formula. The winning recipe blends Old Grand-Dad 114, simple syrup and mint beneath ice pebbles. Were you to ask Burke to use his favorite julep whiskey, though, he'd reach for the Booker's Bourbon because it's a fat, lush product; just know that the substitution comes with an up-charge. Down at Ste. Ellie, you can also taste the Fork in the Road, a nod to the old-school definition of a julep, which blends Hendricks gin, ginger and mint (though Burke admits that the splash of citrus in this drink pushes it into smash territory).
Low Country Kitchen
1575 Boulder Street
Low Country specializes in Southern comfort food, so it's no surprise that the julep features prominently on the cocktail menu. The version here blends single-barrel Buffalo Trace with a mint simple syrup, creating a drink that's initially sweet; it mellows slowly under a melting snowball of ice. Knock one back at Low's pre-Derby brunch, when they'll be on special, and when 20 percent of the proceeds from sales go to the Sean "Ranch" Lough Memorial Foundation, which sends Coloradans to college in-state without financial burden.
Williams & Graham, 3160 Tejon Street, 303-997-8886
Occidental, 1950 West 32nd Avenue, 720-536-8318
These sibling bars and next-door neighbors enable you to compare and contrast what different bourbons do in the julep: Williams & Graham's version is built with Buffalo Trace, while Occidental makes its cocktail with Old Grand-Dad. Both lists also run deep in smashes, good for those who like the concept of a crushed-ice drink but want a little citrus to round out the sweet. In addition to the classic whiskey smash, built with bourbon, mint, simple syrup and lemon, Occidental offers The Rev, adding a little peach and honey to the formula.
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1650 Wewatta Street
This brand-new import from North Carolina brings an opportunity to share a julep among a few of your closest friends: The Derby Day mint julep is served in a tin pail with enough straws for everyone. “We use basically a whole bottle of Old Forester,” says beverage director Michael Echeveste, plus crushed mint and simple syrup and a bucket of crushed ice. If that seems aggressive, you can also order an individual-sized julep here, made with Woodford Reserve and served in a tin cup. Bonus: For Derby Day, the price of both of these juleps will be half off. And by the way, while that large-format julep is only listed on the brunch menu, it’s available by request any time Tupelo Honey is open.
5707 Olde Wadsworth Boulevard, Arvada
The Arvada Tavern was the first post-Prohibition tavern license holder in the city of Arvada, and the current incarnation of the space pays homage to that history. The bottom floor is a restaurant and a swanky cocktail bar specializing in classics; the second floor, accessed via a hidden passage through a phone booth, is home to a small stage where local musicians play bluegrass and jazz. Its list runs deep in whiskey cocktails, and the bar staff here puts together a good julep, built with Maker’s Mark, simple syrup, mint and hand-crushed ice.