Like so many classic cocktails, the Mint Julep’s history is a vast series of smaller tributaries flowing together into the mighty river of bourbon that we know today. The term ‘Julep’ most likely originated with the Arabic word Golâb, which meant ‘rose water.’ That word in turn gradually changed into julab, which became associated with sweet, medicinal drinks. Eventually, everyone settled on julep. Variations of this drink spread across Europe and naturally enough, alcohol began to find its way into the recipes.
By the 1800s, the julep had crossed the Atlantic and was planting deep roots throughout the fertile soil of the American south, particularly in Kentucky. Paired with local mint leaves, mint juleps were frequently made with a variety of spirits before slowly being eclipsed by bourbon, due in no small part bourbon’s relatively lower cost at the time, and the influence of the Kentucky Derby.
While Churchill Downs had been serving the mint julep since the mid 1870s, it wasn’t until 1938 that the Kentucky Derby became widely associated with its now signature cocktail. For accuracy’s sake, it’s worth noting that the current official mint julep of the Kentucky Derby is made with a Kentucky whiskey, and not actual bourbon. But everywhere else, bourbon is widely held as the spirit of choice.