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Mint julep: everything you need to know about this classic American cocktail (and how to make the perfect one)

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Mint juleps

It’s Mint Julep Day: here’s everything you need to know about the classic American cocktail’s history and recipes to make your own at home

As national awareness days go, Mint Julep Day (Thursday 30 May) is, admittedly, fairly niche. A classic cocktail of the southern US – and favoured by the likes of Scarlett O’Hara and Daisy Buchanan – the mint julep has been around for more than 200 years and surged in popularity when it was adopted as the drink of choice at the Kentucky Derby in the 1930s. Here’s your need-to-know to celebrate in style.

What is in a mint julep?

The ingredients of a traditional mint julep are bourbon, crushed ice, sugar syrup and fresh mint.

What do I serve it in?

Juleps should be served in silver or pewter tankards called julep cups, so that a frost can form on the outside to keep the drink cool. Pro tip? Hold the cup by either the top or bottom rim so as not to melt the ice too quickly and ensure your julep stays nice and frosty as long as possible. This silver-plated version is perfect.

Why is it called a mint julep?

The word ‘julep’ is derived from the ancient Persian word ‘gulab’, meaning ‘rosewater’, referring to a sweet drink made with water and rose petals. The word transferred to Arabic as ‘julab’ and Latin as ‘julapium’, where it came to refer to a medicinal syrup usually flavoured with herbs. Adding mint and sugar water to sweeten spirits such as rum and brandy was common in southern US states in the early 1800s, and mint juleps were drunk by thirsty Virginian farmers before a day’s toil in the fields. But its popularity in Kentucky – the home of American whiskey – led to bourbon being adopted as the spirit of choice. Its popularity spread across the US and mint juleps also make an appearance in two literary classics: The Great Gatsby and Gone With The Wind.

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What syrup should I use?

You can make your own simple sugar syrup at home by mixing equal 2 parts water and 1 part granulated sugar. Bring the mixture to the boil in a saucepan, then turning the heat to low and stir until the sugar has completely dissolved. Leave the syrup to cool, then transfer to a bottle, seal and store it in the refrigerator for up to a month. And that’s it. It’s called simple syrup for a reason.

How do you make a mint julep?

Ingredients:

10 mint leaves 

10ml (2 teaspoons) sugar syrup

50ml (1oz) bourbon (we use Evan Williams Bourbon)

Crushed ice

Mint sprig, to garnish

Method:

In a julep tankard, add the mint leaves and sugar syrup and lightly muddle together. Add the bourbon and pack in some of the crushed ice. Stir together well. Top with more crushed ice and finish with a sprig of mint.  

Recipe by: Wesley Yeung, head bartender at Darby’s, London

Mint julep cocktail
Mint julep cocktail

What are some variations you can try?

Kentucky Darby

If you’re not a bourbon fan, Wesley Yeung from Darby’s has created a twist on the mint julep called the Kentucky Darby, using scotch rather than bourbon and Italian spirit Amaro.

Ingredients:

35ml (2½ tablespoons) Monkey Shoulder Whisky

25ml (2 tablespoons) Amaro Montenegro

10 mint leaves (rub the leaves in your hand to release the flavour)

Crushed ice

5ml (1 teaspoon) Ardbeg 10-Year-Old Scotch Whisky

Mint sprig, to garnish

Method:

In a julep tankard, add the Monkey Shoulder, Amaro Montenegro, mint leaves and enough of the crushed ice to fill half way up. Stir well. Pack in the remaining crushed ice, pour over the Ardbeg and finish with a sprig of mint.

Strawberry mint julep

Add some fresh fruit to add extra sweetness with this recipe from Southern Living 

Ingredients:

2 tablespoons simple syrup

5 strawberries, sliced

5-6 large mint leaves

⅓ cup bourbon

Method:

In a large glass, muddle together the syrup, strawberries and mint leaves. Add bourbon and stir to combine. Fill two glasses with crushed ice. Pour the mixture over the ice and garnish with a sliced strawberry on the rim of the cup.

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Alcohol-free mint julep

Non-drinkers can still enjoy the refreshing hit of sugar and mint with this booze-free take on the mint julep from Epicurious 

Ingredients:

¼ cup water

¼ cup white sugar

1 tablespoon chopped fresh mint leaves

2 cups crushed ice

½ cup lemonade

Fresh mint sprigs, to garnish

Method:

In a small saucepan, combine the water, sugar and the chopped mint. Stir and bring to a boil. Cook until sugar has dissolved, then remove from heat and set aside to cool. After about an hour, strain out mint leaves. Fill 2 cups or frozen goblets with crushed ice. Pour half the lemonade into each glass and top with a splash of sugar syrup. Garnish each with a mint sprig and a straw.

Images: Getty Images, Adam Jaime

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Jenny Tregoning

Jenny Tregoning is deputy production editor and food editor at Stylist, where she combines her love of grammar with lusting over images of food

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