The next best thing to attending the Kentucky Derby is enjoying the iconic horse race’s signature sip, the mint julep. Heck, even if you don’t care anything about horse racing or big hats, this classic cooling cocktail is simply a deliciously satisfying one to add to your springtime drink repertoire. Here we’ve gather expert advice and recipes for making a “perfect” mint julep, along with a fun and festive twist on this icy favorite.

Getty Images/Brent Hofacker
| Credit: Getty Images/Brent Hofacker

Saturday, May 6th will mark the 143rd running of the Kentucky Derby. This historic event, held annually on the first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs, is a significant part of the city of Louisville’s cultural identity and serves as (what I’d imagine to be) a hoot and holler of a good time for visiting celebs and tourists who possess some desire to wear, or accompany someone wearing, a massive and massively pricey sunhat.

And for those of us who are blatantly not hat people, or who will not be attending the race for any number of other valid reasons, Derby Day is mostly a festive excuse to mix up the signature cocktail associated with this iconic horse race: the Mint Julep. Beyond being tied to the Derby, a classic mint julep is legitimately a perfect simple and refreshing cocktail for sipping on at this point in the year. I love juleps because while plenty of folks limit bourbon to being a hearty and warming liquor, best enjoyed during chilly weather, this cooling cocktail highlight’s bourbon’s delicious range and ability to be as bright, refreshing, and springtime-appropriate as gin. The key components of a mint julep are:

  • bourbon (Duh.)
  • fresh mint (This is what brings that so-fresh factor.)
  • simple syrup (To make it a treat.)
  • plenty of crushed ice (Seriously, the mint julep is like the OG slushie.)

So yeah, I know what’s in it. But to learn how to perfect actually combining these elements into a classic mint julep, I went to the experts—one of my forever favorite, go-to bourbon distilleries, Maker’s Mark. Unsurprisingly, the folks at Maker’s know a thing or two about making a mint julep the right way. And of course, once you understand the rules on how to build a classic, it’s only right to bend them to make something a little extra-special. So without further adieu, this is how the pros do a Derby drink.

3 General Pro-Tips for Making a Perfect Mint Julep:

One. Only use mint leaves that are fresh and green. Using browning leaves will make your julep taste swampy.

Two. Store your mint sprigs leaves down (stems up) in a bowl of ice water to keep them fresh and bright for extended periods of time (as in, all Derby weekend long).

Three. Strain your crushed ice completely before using in a julep. Crushed melts much fasted than cubed ice and you don’t want to immediately water down your cocktail. You can store large quantities of crushed ice in a colander placed over a large bowl; when ready to mix up another batch of cocktails, scoop the ice with a slotted spoon or a scoop with perforations.

How to Make the Perfect Mint Julep

Recipe courtesy of Maker’s Mark

SERVES: 14-16

  • 1 liter Maker’s Mark Bourbon
  • Lots of fresh spearmint
  • 1 cup distilled water
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • Powdered sugar

1. To prepare the mint extract, remove about 40 small mint leaves; wash and place in a small mixing bowl. Cover with 3 ounces of bourbon. Allow the leaves to soak for 15 minutes. Then, gather the leaves in a clean, soap-free piece of cotton cloth and vigorously wring the mint bundle over the bowl of whisky. Dip the bundle again and repeat the process several times; set aside.

2. To prepare the simple syrup, mix granulated sugar and distilled water in a saucepan. Heat to dissolve the sugar, stirring constantly; set aside to cool.

3. To prepare the mint julep mixture, pour 3 ½ cups of bourbon into a large glass bowl or glass pitcher. (Pour the remaining whisky from the liter bottle into another container and save it for another purpose). Add 1 cup of the cooled simple syrup to the bourbon.

4. Gradually add the mint extract a tablespoon at a time to the julep mixture. Each batch of mint extract is different, so you must taste and smell after each tablespoon is added. You may have to leave the room a time or two to clear your nose. The tendency is to use too much mint. You are looking for a soft mint aroma and taste – generally, about 3 tablespoons.

5. When you think it’s right, pour the mixture back into the empty liter bottle using a funnel and refrigerate for at least 24 hours to “marry” the flavors.

6. To serve the mint julep, fill each glass (preferably a silver mint julep cup) half full with crushed or shaved ice. Insert a sprig of mint and then pack in more ice to about an inch over the top of the cup. Insert a straw that has been cut to one inch above the top of the cup so the nose is forced close to the mint when sipping the julep.

7. When frost forms on the cup, pour the refrigerated julep mixture over the ice, add a sprinkle of powdered sugar to the top of the ice and serve.

And for a bright and bubbly twist on their classic recipe above, I really dig Maker’s suggestion for a Champagne Mint Julep. It brings in the essential elements of the classic—mint, bourbon, and plenty of crushed ice—as well as a couple of non-traditional elements (namely, champagne and elderflower liquor) that make for an incredibly elegant and dynamically refreshing cocktail. Beyond tasting like a magic bubbly bourbon flower (trust me, that’s a very good thing), the sweetness on this drink is a little more delicate and it’s super easy to make. You could also use Prosecco or another favorite sparkling white wine in place of the champagne. Here’s how to make it.

Champagne Mint Julep

Recipe courtesy of Maker’s Mark

  • 2 parts Maker’s Mark Bourbon
  • 2 parts sparkling white wine or Champagne
  • ½ parts elderflower liqueur
  • Fresh mint sprigs
  • Lemon twists, for garnish

1. Mix together bourbon, sparkling white wine, and elderflower liqueur. Muddle the bourbon mixture with fresh mint leaves. Strain out mint leaves and pour over crushed ice in a chilled glass. Garnish glass with a lemon twist and a sprig of fresh mint.

By Darcy Lenz and Darcy Lenz