The first true American drink, the julep still wears the crown as the king of summer cocktails, and, in real royal fashion, it typically gets dressed up and paraded around just once a year. Promoted as the official refreshment of the Kentucky Derby since 1938, the julep traces its lineage back well before Churchill Downs adopted the ubiquitous Mint Julep as their drink of choice—its basic recipe template thriving today in both classic and modern iterations.
Of all the names for mixed drinks—cocktails, slings, daisies, mules—the word “julep” claims the longest lineage. Etymologically, it derives from the Persian, gulab, a medicinal mixture of violets, water and sugar that traces its history back more than a millennium. Even in the 17th century, when spirits (brandy, rum and gin) were added to the base recipe, the julep was still considered remedial; it wasn’t uncommon for juleps to be prescribed by doctors in attempts to heal ailing patients.
In the late 18th century, the julep transformed, perplexingly, into a morning beverage not unlike coffee, designed to help early risers face the day. But it was not until the 1810s, with the advent of the American ice industry, that the julep would become an iconic summertime cocktail; what’s more, according to Imbibe!, the addition of “extremely wholesome” mint became the drink’s calling card (to the benefit of future generations, mint was, during the early 19th century, believed to only properly express itself via the addition of spirits). Several decades later, whiskey would surpass brandy, gin and rum as the base spirit of choice.
So how have bartenders reimagined this 19th century classic for the 21st century palate? Here are three modern interpretations alongside the tried-and-tested classics.
The Mint Julep is one of only a handful of drinks that bartenders in the 1820s would have been expected to have in their repertoire. Today, though it’s still appreciated in its original form, bartenders are building on the classic template, with additions like jalepeño-laced simple syrup in Edward Lee’s spicy version, and tangy-sweet sorghum vinegar in Morgan Weber’s Coltivare.
A good choice for those paying homage to the original julep by day-drinking, the Champagne Julep has a lower ABV than the Mint Julep, and likely turns fewer heads. As the name suggests, this classic offers a splash of sparkling wine for a more subtle entry into the day. In the first of its modern, spring-ready incarnations, the Garden State Julep, a base of Applejack brandy and lemon syrup gets topped with dry rosé, while the Bacchanalia plays on the familiar flavors of sangria, combining rye whiskey, red wine syrup and fizzy Lambrusco.
With its double dose of rye and Cognac, the Prescription Julep offers a tongue-in-cheek nod to the drink’s Rx roots. Today’s versions update the formula with the addition of everything from Armagnac and savory Bénédictine (like the one at Houston’s Julep) to rum, oloroso sherry and golden pineapple syrup (as in the Ticonderoga Cup).