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We Asked 13 Bartenders: What Are the Most Imaginative Variations of the Mint Julep for Derby Day?

Mint Juleps are as essential to Derby Day as the horses — especially considering that the Derby itself is only a two-minute race. This means there’s plenty of lead-up time that’s often spent imbibing on the famed beverage. Traditionally crafted with Kentucky bourbon, mint, simple syrup and crushed ice then served in a silver or pewter cup, the Mint Julep has evolved for many reasons — changing palates, trending ingredients, and the race weekend coinciding with Cinco de Mayo to name a few.

While we’re all about the tradition, we never turn down a chance to experiment, especially when it comes to such a classic cocktail. That’s why we asked 13 bartenders for their favorite riffs on the Mint Julep, and the result is a list of subtle twists (think: adding strawberry and rhubarb) to surprising supplemental spirits. The biggest takeaway, perhaps, is from Ray Tremblay, beverage director, COJE Management Group in Boston: “Regardless of the recipe, it’s important to know the mint and bourbon are the stars. Just make sure the backup singers don’t try to steal the show,” he explains.

On that note, no matter the riff, you’ll need a solid Mint Julep base. Break out your muddler, add your mint and sweetener to a highball glass, and muddle until well-mixed. Add crushed ice to your glass, top with bourbon, and you’re good to go.

Here are 13 fun variations on the classic Mint Julep ahead of the Kentucky Derby on May 6.

Pineapple Julep
Tiger Eye Julep
Imposter Syndrome
Chicha Morada Julep
Strawberry Mint Julep
Brandy Julep
Strawberry-Rhubarb Mint Julep
The El Cabello
Blackberry Vanilla Julep
Fairweather
Julep Forte
Adore
Tarragon Julep

Pineapple Julep

“This is a variation on the classic Julep, which I first saw in William Terrington’s ‘Cooling Cups and Dainty Drinks’ from 1867. The original recipe called for gin, which we swap for bourbon, but the lovely juicy, tropical notes that you get from pineapple work really well with the fruity wine and still retain that whiskey punch.” —Chris Moore, head of bars, The Ned NoMad, New York City 

Ingredients

2 ounces pineapple-infused bourbon
½ ounce Riesling
¼ ounce pineapple sherbet
1 dash lime bitters
10 to 12 mint leaves
Garnish: mint sprig pineapple point, icing sugar dust

Tiger Eye Julep

“This Julep is special because it is made with our homemade lemongrass syrup. We make our syrups and Yadong (Thai moonshine) in-house weekly at 11Tigers. Lemongrass has been used in Thai food and beverage since the 17th century, and it’s a fresh and unique flavor that really brings out the bourbon and mint.” —Phattraphorn Wongsak (Patty), general manager and beverage director, 11Tigers, NYC

Ingredients

2 ½ ounces bourbon
1 ounce green Chartreuse
½ ounce fresh lime juice
1 ounce housemade lemongrass syrup
6 Fresh mint leaves

Imposter Syndrome

“I really like this riff because it takes an excellent classic cocktail and turns it on its head. Bourbon is such a great cocktail spirit, but people get intimidated by it. I love using its complex nature to completely change cocktails that sometimes can be considered one-note. This drink is nice and complex while also being a true crusher, you’ll finish this drink way quicker than you thought you would.” —Zac Rogerson, beverage director, Glasshouse Kitchen, Raleigh, N.C.

Ingredients

2 ounces bourbon
1 ounce honey syrup
¾ ounce fresh lemon juice
½ ounce strawberry-basil reduction
2 dashes of orange bitters

Chicha Morada Julep

“I wanted to create a fun and approachable cocktail for Derby Day, so I looked to my Peruvian upbringing for inspiration. Chicha Morada is made with purple corn, lime, sugar, pineapple, and clove, and dates back to the Incan empire; still today, every Peruvian family has their own unique recipe. It adds an additional layer of fruity flavors and subtle sweetness to cocktails.” Carlos Ruiz, mixologist and hospitality industry consultant

Ingredients

2 ounces bourbon
¼ ounce Chicha Morada syrup
8 mint leaves

*Strawberry Mint Julep

“This is a Julep I’ve been doing for years for my family members who claim not to like bourbon. The strawberry syrup is easy to make, and its tempered sweetness balances out the whiskey’s heat. The mint and berry together call to mind a bright, refreshing summer fruit salad, which makes the garnish options as plentiful as your local farmers market fruit selection. Throw in a pinch of cilantro if you’re feeling sassy.” —Nicholas Rose, bartender, mixologist, Tuthilltown Spirits Distillery, Gardiner, N.Y.

Ingredients

2 ounces Hudson Bright Lights Big Bourbon
¼ ounce strawberry simple syrup
6 to 8 mint leaves

Brandy Julep

“The cocktail maintains the tradition of muddled mint and similar base ingredients such as bourbon, sugar, and mint, but the traditional ingredients are amplified with additional ingredients such as maple to enhance the flavor. It’s a fun way to get creative with a classic beverage with more aromatics.” —Danilo Costa, bartender, Somewhere Nowhere, NYC

Ingredients

2 ounces St. George brandy
½ ounce bourbon
1 ounce maple syrup
5 mint sprigs

Strawberry-Rhubarb Mint Julep

“Two months ago, I was developing recipes for a Mint Julep competition that forced me to think outside the box. I played with black pepper, thyme, turmeric, and honeysuckle while trying to concoct a refreshing, summertime drink. This led me to reminisce on my personal summertime food and drink memories. My grandfather was a big fan of rhubarb, especially rhubarb pie — cue my development of the Strawberry-Rhubarb Mint Julep. The tartness of the rhubarb plays well when made into a simple syrup, and adds a sour element to the typically sweet drink.” —Frances Leary, bar manager and beverage curator, The Galt House, Louisville, Ky.

Ingredients

2 ounces bourbon
1 ounce rhubarb syrup
1 strawberry, sliced
5 mint leaves
Soda water to top

The El Cabello

“Perfect for dual weekend celebrations of both Cinco De Mayo and Derby Day, this sweet and spicy cocktail combines everything we love in a Mint Julep with everything we savor in a classic Margarita.” —Kelly Schmidt, assistant beverage director, Main House, Blackberry Farm, a Relais & Châteaux property, Walland, Tenn.

Ingredients

1 ½ ounces Maker’s Mark
¾ ounce Grand Marnier
1 ounce fresh lime juice
½ ounce mint simple syrup
Demerara sugar
Espelette pepper flakes

Blackberry Vanilla Julep

“I created this for the Angel’s Envy distillery party on Derby weekend in Louisville in 2016. Feels like a lifetime ago now, but still one of my favorite variations. Ethiopian coffee has beautiful berry notes, along with cocoa and baking spices that help bridge the gap between the blackberry and the bourbon. A pinch of salt brings down the bitterness of the coffee, as well as the bourbon and lends a savory finish as the cocktail dilutes. The espresso and powdered sugar on the mint create more depth and complexity to the aromatics. This elevates the flavor without having to add more ingredients into the cocktail.” —Ray Tremblay, beverage director, COJE Management Group, Boston

Ingredients

2 ounces bourbon
¼ ounce blackberry vanilla cordial
¼ ounce Ethiopian cold brew
Pinch of salt
6 mint leaves
Garnish: mint and espresso powdered sugar

Fairweather

“The mint is already infused in the rye as opposed to muddling it into the cocktail, which creates a more rounded and composed flavor.” —Gail Westmoreland, lead bartender, Lionfish, San Diego

Ingredients

1 ½ ounces Mint Rabbit Hole Rye
1 ounce rhubarb simple syrup
½ ounce lime juice
Soda to top

Julep Forte

“Forte, both Italian for loud and also a horse leading the charge in 2023’s Run for the Roses, is a fitting name for this intense riff on a Mint Julep. Delivering a powerful experience with bitter,
smoke, and sweet, this variation includes New Riff Bourbon (distilled and aged just over the
border from the hotel in Bellevue), Amaro Sfumato Rabarbaro (a nod to the hotel’s Italian
restaurant Subito), and smoked honey syrup to highlight the smokiness in the amaro and the
sweetness of the bourbon.” —Lindsay Laubenstein, beverage manager and certified cicerone, The Lytle Park Hotel, Cincinnati

Ingredients

2 ounces New Riff Kentucky Bourbon
½ ounce Amaro Sfumato Rabarbaro
1 ounce smoked honey syrup
6 leaves of fresh mint

Adore

”This drink was created as part of a robust cocktail program that is designed to celebrate classic cocktails with a sophisticated twist. Using Bhakta Brandy 27-07 adds complexity to the Julep, with Calvados aromas mixing with the floral and herbal notes of the smoked rosemary.” —Miguel Sanchez, cocktail and couture manager, Waldorf Astoria Chicago, Chicago

Ingredients

2 ounces Bhakta Brandy 27-07
1 ounce lime juice
½ ounce simple syrup
1 ounce grapefruit juice
1 ounce ginger beer
3 blackberries

Tarragon Julep

“Whereas a traditional julep offers fresh flavors of mint and bourbon, our tarragon julep offers notes of agave, tropical fruit, anise, and citrus for a more unique flavor profile. As long as the ice is crushed and the drink is strong in a frosty mug, it’s the perfect julep for me.” —Gary Wallach, beverage director, Foxtail, managing partner Renwick Hospitality, NYC

Ingredients

1 ½ ounces Sauvignon Blanc
½ ounce Herradura Tequila Blanco
1 dash absinthe
½ ounce tarragon syrup
½ ounce guava purée
1 dash Bittermans Hopped Grapefruit Bitters

The article We Asked 13 Bartenders: What Are the Most Imaginative Variations of the Mint Julep for Derby Day? appeared first on VinePair.

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