Springtime Libation

AJ Rathbun, author of the award-winning book "Good Spirits," dishes on one of our favorite spring cocktails

Mint Julep in classic metal julep cup

At one point there were many juleps. It was a whole class of fruity drinks, with offshoots, cousins, and icy branches. The word itself descends from the Arabic julab, which means rosewater, and has come to refer to seasoned water, fruity water, or boozy-fruity-water. There is serious history with a julep, and maybe that weight is one of the problems keeping this, one of the world’s ideal liquid compositions, mostly regulated to a particular and very popular horse race held the first Saturday in May.

Now, I love a Mint Julep on Derby Day as much as at least half of my close friends. (The other half? Insane for it. Dangerous for it. Raising their children to be Mint Julep madwomen and madmen on Derby Day.) However, I do feel a pinch pecked that the Mint Julep is not given its broader due. The Mint Julep is a prince or princess among drinks. Its harmony of spring water (who doesn’t love the spring?), sublime sugar, fresh mint (which carries the heart of spring in every leaf, like a hope for sunshine and a blooming and better world), and then, finally, and most importantly, America’s own bourbon, brings stability to the glass, to springtime, and to any occasion where it’s served. All of these elements socialize, mingle, and combine to become an essential part not only of history, but of every gala where a drop passes lips.

This, then, is a Julep: a part of history and a part of making history. Remember that next time you’re mixing one up. You’re having a drink, but now you’re also part of something larger than yourself.




4 or 5 fresh mint leaves 

1 ounce Simple Syrup

Crushed ice 

3 ounces Kentucky bourbon

Fresh mint sprig for garnish




1. Take one mint leaf and rub it over the inside of a metal julep cup (if you have one) or a highball glass. Be sure the mint comes into close acquaintance with all of the inside of the glass, then let the leaf come to rest in the glass.

2. Add the remaining mint leaves and the simple syrup to the glass. Using a muddler or wooden spoon, muddle the leaves and syrup well. Remember, only by being strong can you live up to the juleps that came before yours.

3. Fill the glass halfway full with crushed ice. Add the bourbon. Stir well—the glass should get icy.

4. Fill the glass almost to the top with crushed ice. Stir just once and garnish with the mint sprig and a bit of reverence.

Note: Once upon a time, you picked your ice up in a block, then crushed it in a special ice-crushing bag. If you need to just start with crushed ice, don’t be too sad—or too happy—about it.

I’ve quoted this before, but it bears repeating: “A Mint Julep is not the process of a formula. It is a ceremony and must be performed by a gentleman possessing a true sense of the artistic, a deep reverence for the ingredients, and a proper appreciation of the occasion.”—S.B. Buckner, Jr., in a letter to General Connor, 1937.

A.J. Rathbun is the author of Good Spirits: Recipes, Revelations, Refreshments, and Romance, Shaken and Served with a Twist (Harvard Common Press, 2007) and other books.