Derby Day, a celebration of the annual Kentucky Derby horse race, is an American tradition. Although the race itself doesn’t last long—some call it the greatest two minutes in sports—the parties that lead up to the sprint can last all day if not all week, fueled by plenty of Mint Juleps. Keep the conversation (and drinks) flowing with this guide to Julep trivia, sourced mostly from the book Southern Spirits: Four Hundred Years of Drinking In the American South, with Recipes by Robert F. Moss.
1. No one drinks Mint Juleps in the South these days.
The exception: around the time of the Kentucky Derby, of course. Over the course of two days at Churchill Downs, Moss estimates, more than 120,000 Mint Juleps are served, “which I suspect exceeds the total number of Juleps served anywhere else in the South during the entire rest of the year.”
2. The earliest Juleps didn’t include bourbon or mint—just rum, water and sugar.
Around 1800, mint slipped into the equation. Many antebellum Juleps (see recipe below) were made with cognac or other French brandies. According to some accounts, Juleps made farther north in New York City, circa 1830s, were often made with peach brandy as the liquor of choice. Thanks to the phylloxera epidemic of the mid-1800s, which infected France’s grapevines and hobbled cognac production, and a federal excise tax on American-made brandies, whiskey likely became the staple after the Civil War.
3. Juleps and similar libations were called antifogmatics and were often consumed in the morning.
American author Samuel Goodrich explains that “in the Southern states, where the ague is so common and troublesome a malady, where fogs are frequent and dews heavy, it has grown the custom to fortify the body from attacks of the disease, by means of Juleps, or what are called antifogmatics.” That’s our kind of eye-opener.
4. When crushed ice was added, the drink became known as the Hailstorm Julep.
That was sometime around 1830, when ice still was hard to procure, often transported from Boston or other Northern climes and protected in icehouses. The drink was made like an ordinary Julep, one visitor to West Virginia reported, except the glass was “well filled with a quantity of ice chopped in small pieces, which is then put in shape of a fillet around the outside of the tumbler.”
5. Mint Juleps weren’t served on the verandas of big plantation houses out in the country.
Scratch your Scarlett O’Hara fantasies. “The Mint Julep was a city concoction, one of the fancy drinks associated with the great hotel bars of Southern cities,” such as the Ballard House hotel in Richmond and the Saint Charles Hotel in New Orleans, Moss asserts. “The Mint Julep is closely associated with Kentucky today, but before the Civil War, it was a city slicker’s drink, not something you found in the rolling horse country of the Bluegrass State.”
6. The drink was first mentioned in print in 1803.
According to John Davis’s 1803 book "Travels of Four and a Half Years in the United States of America," a mint julep was said to be a “dram of spirituous liquor that has mint steeped in it, taken by Virginians of a morning.”