The one time of year to drink a mint julep

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You can have a gin and tonic or a negroni any time you want. But order a mint julep in October and you’re likely to get some odd looks from the bartender.

Indeed, many cocktails are linked to specific times and places — hurricanes in New Orleans, daiquiris on the beach, old fashioneds after you finally get into Mad Men 10-plus years later. But perhaps no cocktail is as connected to a moment as the mint julep and the Kentucky Derby, which will occur May 1.

The mint julep has a long, odd history. Mentions of the drink go as far back as the mid-1700s, when it was referenced as a medicinal drink, with the modern-day base of Bourbon sometimes switched out for rum, gin or ginever (aged gin). All had a hint of sweetness, all had the drink’s trademark addition of fresh mint.

In the 19th century, juleps made with various spirits took off. Frederick Marryat wrote in 1840 an early definition of the cocktail in Second Series of A Diary of America:

“There are many varieties [of Mint Julep], such as those composed of Claret, Madeira, [etc.].; but the ingredients of the real mint-julep are as follows. I learnt how to make them, and succeeded pretty well. Put into a tumbler about a dozen sprigs of the tender shoots of mint, upon them put a spoonful of white sugar, and equal proportions of peach and common brandy, so as to fill it up one-third, or perhaps a little less. Then take rasped or pounded ice, and fill up the tumbler. Epicures rub the lips of the tumbler with a piece of fresh pine-apple, and the tumbler itself is very often incrusted outside with stalactites of ice. As the ice melts, you drink.”

Eventually, the popularity of the drink, particularly in the South, led to its association with the Kentucky Derby (an esteemed horse race). Since 1938, juleps have been served there, first with Kentucky whiskey (it wasn’t quite bourbon, as the spirit used was aged on used, not new, oak barrels). Now, official Derby juleps include Old Forester or Woodford Reserve bourbons, both fine options, but if you’re making it at home (see recipe below), you’ll want to go with the Woodford.

You can put all that in a mint julep glass; the official Derby branded one is available at kentuckyderby.com, or you can pick up a julep glass at a local liquor or food store, like Hazel’s.

However, if you’re not a typical bourbon drinker (and thus won’t know what to do with what remains in the bottle after Derby Day) or you don’t want to fuss with making or buying simple syrup, there are places to go nearby that’ll make a julep for you. Plus, drinking it in the (distanced) company of others makes it taste better. That’s annecdtoal, sure, but we’re sticking to it.

West End Tavern’s holding a Derby celebration from April 29 through May 2 with $10 Woodford Reserve mint juleps; head over on Derby Day, wear a funny hat and you might win a prize. West End’s also pouring a special Woodford Reserve by itself and it’ll have deviled eggs and chicken and waffles. And, for a deeply Southern experience, head to Monkey Barrel in Denver, which’ll pair its Derby drink offerings with a crawfish boil.

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