Very few drinks bear the distinct honor of close ties to a region and major event like that of the mint julep.
The epitome of a Southern classic, the highly-esteemed cocktail was born just below the Mason-Dixon line in Virginia, and soon became the signature mixed drink served at the Kentucky Derby and genteel summer soirées in the South. During the first weekend each May, more than 100,000 mint juleps are served to the Churchill Downs set, with even more sippers raising their pewter cups and highball glasses from home at Derby parties around the country. While the details are muddled between the two states on which makes the best julep and how it should be prepared, its storied history, endless flavor, and deep connection to the South are not up for debate.
Most can agree, however, that a proper mint julep consists of four staple ingredients: bourbon, mint leaves, syrup, and crushed ice. The bourbon is at your discretion. But the better the rye, the better (and easier) it goes down—one cool and refreshing swallow at a time. And while we’re advocates of the “if it ain’t broke” motto, there’s nothing wrong with mixing things up every now and then. For a more creative and spirited approach, try one of these unique twists the next time you’re behind the bar.
From chunks of fresh fruit to sweet chocolate, these six ideas are perfect for sipping and sitting on the front porch this summer.
1. Add a Touch of Heat
It’s no secret that Southerners prefer our food (and, sometimes cocktails) hot and spicy. To balance overly sweet mint juleps and to add a little kick, incorporate jalapeños in the syrup. You’d combine sugar and water as you normally would for a regular julep, tossing in a couple of stemmed and chopped peppers in the pot as well. Bring to a boil, stirring until the sugar is dissolved. You can also use a jalapeño slice, instead of mint sprigs, as garnish.
2. Blend, Don’t Stir
Um, mint julep slushy, anyone? So refreshingly delicious, we’d welcome the ensuing brain freeze any day. Simply chill the bourbon and mint leaves overnight in the refrigerator and make your syrup in advance. Once chilled, blend everything together with ice until the mixture is thick and slushy.
3. Infuse Sweet Elements
Chocolate and bourbon lovers, rejoice! Here’s an unexpected combination that will satisfy both your guilty pleasures. Just combine chocolate mint (instead of spearmint) with bourbon. It’s like enjoying boozy chocolate peppermint patties in drink form.
4. Make it Fruity
If you’re branching out, you might as well use the season's best. Fruit chunks and fruit juice offer a fresh alternative to the sugar used for the syrup, and it also makes a colorful garnish. Our version includes juicy, ripe strawberries. Yum!
5. Whip Up Jello Shots
These bite-sized mint julep gelées are great for entertaining and far more sophisticated and invigorating than average appetizers.
6. Turn Mint Julep Into Tea
Our two favorite Southern beverages come together to make the perfect cold brew—sweet tea and mint julep. A cool and interesting pairing, we can all drink to that.