It’s Derby season; therefore I thought a column on the venerable Mint Julep was appropriate. However, rather than dwell on recipes and many storied details, I thought I would discuss the business side of this state icon. Yes, I believe the drink itself is an icon, of sorts. The Kentucky Derby is an internationally followed event, one of the symbols of the state, and its hard to think of the Kentucky Derby without thinking of the Kentucky Mint Julep as well. It is also a classic American drink, Kentucky’s signature cocktail, and probably the best known of all bourbon drinks.
A great resource to learn about the history, lore and other information about this drink is a book by Colonel Joe Nickell entitled The Kentucky Mint Julep, available in most local bookstores. In this book, you can learn about the ancient original uses of the term “julep” as a syrup that was a vehicle for medicine. Over time it evolved from a medicinal application to a standard whisky drink. The use of mint further evolved the drink into an American invention, with much of the debate from mixologists and others over the perfect Mint Julep being over whether to crush the mint leaves or not.
Mint Juleps are a serious business and help make bourbon a serious business. Many bourbon producers find that the Derby season (along with the Christmas holiday season) is one of their stronger domestic sales periods. Examples of the business aspects of the Kentucky Mint Julep include the following:
1. The Early Times Mint Julep Cocktail is a ready-to-serve beverage and is “The Official Mint Julep of the Kentucky Derby.” Over the two-day period of the Kentucky Oaks and the Kentucky Derby, almost 120,000 Early Times Mint Juleps are served, requiring approximately 60,000 pounds of ice. Additionally, there is the Grade II Early Times Mint Julep Stakes on May 24 at Churchill Downs, which is sponsored by Early Times www.earlytimes.com.
2. Woodford Reserve, which is “The Official Bourbon of the Kentucky Derby,” also heavily leverages the drink’s awareness. One way is through their limited edition $1,000 Mint Julep Cup, which this year celebrates the 35th anniversary of Secretariat’s victory in the Kentucky Derby. Additionally, you can visit their Web site, www.woodfordreserve.com, which provides tips on how to throw a Derby party including a brief video featuring Tim Laird, Woodford Reserve’s chief entertainment officer, on how to make that perfect and authentic Kentucky Mint Julep.
3. There are numerous Mint Julep variations, including frozen and even non-alcoholic versions, that provide restaurant and bar owners with options to not only capitalize on the drink’s name recognition but to cater to a broad array of tastes and preferences. Bistro Labelle in Midway, Ky., owned by Laura Wolfrom, serves The Derby Cocktail with Maker’s Mark, orange curacao, sweet vermouth, fresh lime juice and a hint of mint.
4. Bulleit Bourbon in Lawrenceburg has a recipe section on their Web site, www.bulleitbourbon.com, where they currently feature Tom Bulleit’s Mint Julep recipe.
5. Probably the best known and most broadly collected Kentucky Derby souvenir is the Kentucky Derby julep glass. These glasses have been produced since 1938 and have created a whole collectible aftermarket with prices guides, Web sites, and more. A great resource for information on every piece of Derby glassware ever produced including pictures is the Kentucky Derby Glasses Price Guide by Eclipse Press.
6. Another related product is the silver Mint Julep Cup, which may be made from sterling silver or a more economical silver plated version. Many companies produce various versions of this, and they are popular gifts. Nineteenth-century silversmiths such as Kentuckians Asa Blanchard, George Plimpton, and John B. Akin made highly collectible cups from coin silver that today are very sought after and can be valued as high as $4,000 apiece.