Six Mint Julep Cocktail Variations for the Kentucky Derby

True horse-racing enthusiasts may be few and far and between (and successful bettors even rarer), but tomorrow's 141st Kentucky Derby brings out the fan and bettor in many of us. While we won't all win, one proposition bet that no one has ever gone broke on is that the drink of choice at the many Derby parties thrown in Louisville will be the Mint Julep. Some 12,000 are served at Churchill Downs itself.

You might place a side bet that plenty of folks will saddle up their arguments on how to make mint Juleps. While they may quarrel about the minutiae of method, most Kentuckians agree on two points: Bourbon is the spirit of choice, and anyone not from Kentucky (the ancestral home of Bourbon) knows nothing about how to make them.

Those notions seem to be losing traction, however—and may not have been true to begin with. Since 1938, the Kentucky Derby and the Mint Julep have had an official relationship, making it one of the world's foremost event-related drinks. (Sure, there's Champagne at New Year's, but that doesn't take any mixological knowledge to prepare. There's the Pimm's Cup at the Henley Regatta, but that's not exactly an event that has people glued to the TV with glass in hand.)

Nevertheless, Juleps existed before the first Run for the Roses in 1875—and they weren't specifically made with Bourbon. The name itself comes from the Persian word julab, which means rosewater, and simply suggests a sweetened drink. Even when mint got into the mix it was still a generic potent made with any manner of spirit—e.g. gin, brandy, wine, etc. It was also considered a morning quaff or medical tincture.

While former Kentucky Sen. Henry Clay cemented the Julep's reputation as a strict Bourbon/mint/sugar drink during Washington quorums, this foundation seems to be crumbling based on the many variations that modern bartenders have come up with every year.

Even Woodford Reserve, which has owned the title of the official Bourbon of the Kentucky Derby for 10 years, can't resist some variation in its Julep for the $1,000 Mint Julep Cup program (with net proceeds going to the Wounded Warrior Equestrian Program). Note that mixologist Pamela Wiznitzer strays from the usual simple syrup sweetener and takes some license with foreign fruity garnishes.

Woodford Reserve 2015 Kentucky Derby Mint Julep
2 oz. Woodford Reserve Double Oaked
.75 oz. coconut palm sugar syrup
6-8 chocolate mint sprigs
Candied orange and lemon slices for garnish
Powdered sugar

Combine ingredients and shake with the mint. In the Julep glass, place three sprigs of mint at the bottom and top with crushed ice, then strain the liquid into the glass. Insert a metal spoon straw and top it with a mint sprig and candied orange/lemon slice and powdered sugar.

While that is at least homegrown concept, what may be more worrisome to Kentuckians is the number of outsiders who are jumping into the fray again this year:

The Fire Down Below

Closest to home is a recipe coming from the Bluegrass State's whiskey rivals to the south. Technically, the Flaming Julep is not made with Bourbon, but a cinnamon liqueur blended with Tennessee sour mash whiskey. Furthermore, it isn't literally a flaming cocktail. Its "heat" comes from the spicy spirit and the sour fruit juice. Nevertheless, it is a morning eye-opener. Jack Daniel's Tennessee Fire is now available nationwide, after a rollout in eight states.

The Flaming Julep
1 1/2 oz. Jack Daniel's Tennessee Fire
3 oz. cranberry juice

In a rocks glass with ice, add ingredients. Stir and garnish with a mint leaf.

Really South of the Border

Travel down to South Carolina and you can find the luxury hotel Belmond Charleston Place, where its Thoroughbred Club pays homage to a now shuttered 1792 jockey club with a collection of three Juleps. One contains Godiva chocolate liqueur, another has cherry brandy and the third is truly Southern with its inclusion of the Mexican, chile-infused Ancho Reyes liqueur.

Ancho Julep
1.5 oz. Woodford reserve
1 oz. Ancho Reyes
.75 oz. brown sugar simple syrup
6-8 mint leaves
Club soda

Muddle mint with syrup. Add Bourbon and Ancho Reyes. Fill with crushed ice. Stir. Top with soda. Garnish with mint and a slice of red pepper.

From the Great White North

North of the border, Canadian whisky makers are also willing to try their hand. Created for Pendleton Whisky by renowned mixologist Jonathan Pogash, the Rodeo Julep tempers sweetness with tart pomegranate juice. It also adds an antioxidant character for those who are drinking for their health.

Rodeo Julep
2 oz. Pendleton Whisky
1 oz. pomegranate juice
3/4 oz. simple syrup
Lots of fresh mint

Shake ingredients very well with ice and pour into an ice-filled rocks glass or Julep mug. Garnish with lots of fresh mint sprigs on top of the glass.

A Japanese Way to Julep

Zuma New York, a modern Japanese cuisine restaurant in midtown, has brought complexity to its take on the Julep. Tokyo at Midnight manages to combine sweet, sour, bitter and nuts in one glass, with the added curveball of an artichoke digestif.

Tokyo at Midnight
5 blackberries (muddled)
10 mint leaves (bruised)
45 ml. Bourbon
30 ml. lemon juice
22.5 ml. Cardamaro (artichoke digestif)
15 ml. simple syrup
2 dashes walnut bitters

Muddle blackberries and mint leaves. Add crushed ice and churn. Pour into copper Julep cup. Top with crushed ice. Garnish with mint sprig and two blackberries (on circle skewer).

Opening the Bombay Doors

In Mumbai, India, apple is apparently the apple of the Julep lover's eye. Ellipsis, with its program created by Adam Weisblatt, depends on fruit- (not corn-) based spirits for its Derby drink. The Apple Mint Julep matches apple brandy with pear liqueur, with no Bourbon in sight.

Apple Mint Julep
1.5 oz. Calvados Boulard Grand Solange
.5 oz. Poire William
1 tsp. Demerara Syrup
7-8 mint leaves

Rub a double old-fashioned glass down with mint. Build. Swizzle.

Down Caribbean Way

While the Canadians maintain at least a whisky component to the Julep, venture elsewhere and you won't find the same sort of reference. Bacardi is suggesting Derby watchers defect from Juleps almost entirely this year. Brown spirits are dispensed with altogether in this traditional rum-based cousin to a Julep, even while a suitable dress code—seersucker—is observed in the title.

Sour Seersucker Mojito
2 parts Bacardí Superior Rum
4 lime wedges
12 fresh mint leaves
2 heaped tsp. of caster sugar
1 part soda water/club soda
Sprig of fresh mint to garnish

Gently press together the limes and sugar. Bruise the mint leaves by clapping them between your palms, rub them on the rim of the glass and drop them in. Next, fill the glass halfway with crushed ice, add the rum and stir. Top up with crushed ice, a splash of soda and a sprig of mint.

Still Room for the Purist

If you remain unconvinced by such new culture as Bourbon-less Juleps, here is the tried-and-true recipe we suggest:

Mint Julep
1 dozen mint leaves
1 tbsp. simple syrup
2 dashes Angostura bitters
2 ounces Bourbon

Place the intended serving vessels in the freezer at least half an hour before post time. Combine half the leaves with the syrup and bitters in a mixing glass. Gently muddle (crushed leaves reveal a bitter side). Add the whiskey, and muddle some more, while stirring. Retrieve the glasses from the freezer. Fill them with crushed ice and pour the mixture in. Garnish the mouth of the glass with the remaining mint. Serve with napkins.

Lazy-Man Juleps

If that sounds like a little too much work, there's now a ready-to-drink cocktail in a liter bottle from the Old Forester Bourbon brand. You need only pour it over ice and mint leaves. The concoction also has the authenticity of being served at Churchill Downs on Derby Day.

If that still seems like a bit of trouble, we have another surefire method for enjoying Bourbon. Take careful note:

Pick your favorite Bourbon. Uncork bottle. Drink.