Though the humble mint julep—bourbon, sugar, fresh mint sprigs, and a heaping cone of crushed ice—probably appeared in some form in the American South as early as the 18th century, it didn’t become the official drink of the Kentucky Derby until 1938. Today, more than 120,000 of the boozy sippers are served annually to throngs of two-minute thrill seekers. Still, the origins of the cocktail are much more old hat than the lids donned throughout Churchill Downs.
“Juleps are one of those incredible cocktails that tells the history of America and its drinking traditions,” says Dane Nakamura of Voltaggio Brothers Steakhouse, at Maryland’s new MGM National Harbor casino resort. “Back then, the julep was considered to be a cure for stomach ailments, thanks in part to the mint.” The herb plays a big part in Nakamura’s interpretation, blanketing the bottom of a glass that is then topped with sous-vide apple-butter bourbon, demerara syrup, Angostura bitters, and crushed ice.
At Boleo, the Latin-tinged rooftop lounge of Chicago’s new Kimpton Gray Hotel, head bartender Jess Lambert serves up a popular South American reinterpretation, the Cynar julep, made with the Italian artichoke-based bitter liqueur. “It’s heavily consumed in
Buenos Aires,” notes Lambert, who pairs grapefruit juice, raspberry syrup, and mint with the vegetal bitterness of Cynar. “Juleps can sometimes end up really sweet, so Cynar is great, because it finishes dry. We can control those sugar levels.”
At San Diego’s Polite Provisions, a 2016 James Beard nominee for outstanding bar program, Frank McGrath and Erick Castro embrace that sweetness, topping their Café Julep with a healthy dusting of powdered sugar. The cocktail—demerara and navy-strength rums, Kahlua, crushed ice, and house bitters, served in a copper camping mug—may be winter-inspired, but McGrath acknowledges the julep as a fixture for less frigid temps. “It’s refreshing and definitely a staple in the summertime,” he says.
Meanwhile, Roger Allen of Gib’s Bar in Madison, Wisconsin, says the drink-morphing ability of the crushed ice is the key to his Prescription Julep, which features rye, cognac, demerara syrup, Angostura bitters, and mint. “It’s a drink with longevity,” Allen says. “You can let it sit and evolve over time or drink it all right away, which is typically what I do. I’m not very patient with a drink that tastes this good.”