The True Origin Story of the Famous Mint Julep

“The julep was a lowly thing. It was native to Virginia. And made out of gin.”

By Bill Doolittle

The mint julep desperately needed the Derby.

In the years before 1875 when Col. Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr. staged the first Kentucky Derby, the julep was a lowly thing. It was native to Virginia. And made out of gin.

I know. Can you imagine – gin?

But scholars who find out these things claim it’s true.

A better story begins in Kentucky, where the denizens were far too busy perfecting the distillation and aging of bourbon whiskey to have time for cooking up a batch of gin. By and by, someone – or probably many someones – came to apply the gin julep principles to bourbon whiskey. That is, a shot and half of bourbon with a dash of melted sugar and plenty of ice, if you’ve got it. This was before refrigeration, of course. But spring would be an excellent time to chip some ice off of whatever block one had left in the cold cellar from winter and apply it to making a festive, party kind of drink. In spring, mint is always plentiful near the spring branch or your backyard. Serve in nice glasses or, if you happened to possess such things, pull down heirloom silver cups that spend other seasons in a cabinet. Presto – a mint julep. And welcome to our home.

Sugar, of course, in its granulated form doesn’t dissolve well in cold drinks, so it would have been boiled down to “simple syrup” to blend nicely without the kind of agitation that might adversely disturb the delicate mating of ingredients. A social drink that dates to before the Civil War.

Photo courtesy of the Kentucky Derby Museum.

“I suspect,” said George Hobbs, a native Kentuckian interested in such things, “that the origin of the mint julep has to do with a little bit of sugar being added to whiskey – not merely to make the drink more palatable but rather to render more genteel what otherwise sophisticated people might view as a rather uncouth beverage: corn whiskey.

“And I suppose,” added George, “that with the finery of the Derby and the culture put on display, the only sensible thing to do was render the nectars as genteel as possible. That would give the ladies an excuse to have one. Or two. The fact that a rather large glass is used could also allow for a healthy consumption without the appearance of pouring drink after drink.”

‘Could you please make one for the Count?’

At any rate, it is generally agreed upon that versions of a bourbon julep were around in Kentucky before the first Kentucky Derby, but it took Col. Clark himself to perfect the thing and add it permanently to the roster of Derby traditions.

The exact moment that happened is documented by the late author and historian Jim Bolus, who is considered the leading authority on the Kentucky Derby. And it happened not during the first Kentucky Derby but the second in 1876.

According to Bolus, Clark threw a fabulous party on the eve of the Derby in his quarters at the racetrack (which wasn’t yet called Churchill Downs, by the way). Clark’s special guest of honor was the Polish Countess Helena Modjeska and her husband, Count Bozenta. The Countess was a celebrated actress in Europe and was on tour that year in the United States (and decided to stay). As is done today, Clark courted the Countess to get her to attend the Kentucky Derby, believing such a famous and talented personage would add glamour to the race, which it did.

Photo courtesy of the Kentucky Derby Museum.

At the banquet, Clark supervised the mixing of a giant bourbon julep in a large punch bowl. He garnished the concoction with sprigs of mint, proposed a toast and set the bowl in front of the Countess with a flourish.

The Countess skipped ladling a portion into a cup and lifted the whole silver bowl to her mouth for the first taste.

“Eet is wonderful,” the Countess exclaimed after drinking. “Could you please make one for the Count?”

The Frost That Comes Up

The late Jim Hennessy was a great fan of the mint julep – for one week of the year. “I wouldn’t give you 15 cents for one the other 51 weeks of the year,” Hennessy would testify, “but a mint julep during Derby Week is like a flower in spring to me.”

“With the finery of the Derby and the culture put on display, the only sensible thing to do was render the nectars as genteel as possible. That would give the ladies an excuse to have one. Or two.”

And not just for its refreshing taste.

“Maybe it’s the frost that comes up on the outside of the silver cup,” Hennessy said. “It’s a very attractive drink. When you stick that mint in there and the cup starts frosting and you sprinkle a dusting of powdered sugar on the green mint … well, you simply cannot find a better presentation than the mint julep. It just looks good.”

The look of the thing, the presentation, the cavalcade of Derby history – all of that rolled into one and really took off when the Harry M. Stevens Co. got the catering contract at Churchill Downs in the late 1930s.

Stevens found that the water glasses in which mint juleps were served in dining rooms at Churchill Downs on Derby Day had a mysterious way of disappearing. So in 1938, he produced the first colorful souvenir mint julep glasses and patrons were invited to keep them as souvenirs, which they did.

Stevens, who also invented the hot dog (but that’s another story), added the names of all previous Kentucky Derby winners to the glass for the 1941 Derby – which would be won by Whirlaway – and the list has grown now to include all 144 champions and counting.

Today, the Levy’s company has succeeded Stevens, but the knowledge of how to make wonderful mint juleps (better at the track than anywhere!) by the thousands endures. No visitor would come to Louisville for the first Saturday in May without trying one.

And so the once lowly julep has more than repaid the Derby for lifting it from a gin-soaked existence in Virginia by becoming a valued tradition of the Kentucky Derby, as familiar around the world as Twin Spires and the words “They’re off!”

It even serves in a kind of ambassador’s role in helping Derby lovers put into the words the tradition and spectacle of it all. Many flowery treatises have been penned to extol the drink’s virtues – and almost as many more to dismiss them as corny nonsense. Like the Kentucky Derby itself.

A favorite for this scribe to describe how to take the mint julep, that “One’s plenty, two’s too many and three ain’t near enough.” V


The Bright Knight

Extravagant hats and fashions became the norm for the Kentucky Derby thanks to former WHAS11 reporter Phyllis Knight

By Bill Doolittle

Women have always worn hats to the Kentucky Derby. Men, too. But the explosion of feathers and colors that top the Derby fashion parade today is a modern-day thing – due in no small way to WHAS11 TV news reporter Phyllis Knight, who saw the coming of the colorful trend and ran with it.

I wish I were a glamour puss. It would be so exciting.
– Phyllis Knight

Knight was a one of the country’s first female news reporters as TV made its way into American life. She began a 37-year career at WHAS radio and television in the 1950s at the same time the station was pioneering an all-day remote telecast of the Kentucky Derby. The station’s network partner CBS came on for an hour and a half to broadcast the Derby at 5:30 p.m., but the rest of the day belonged to Channel 11 – and Knight was an important part of it. Taking a spot with well-known on-air personalities such as Milton Metz, Fred Wiche and Cawood Ledford, Knight carved out a regular niche by interviewing women about their Derby outfits – dresses, shoes … and those hats!

Knight moved around Churchill Downs – now up on Millionaires Row, then down “on the bricks” near the paddock. If it were a pretty day, she would find open space to talk to Derby goers on the grassy lawn in the Clubhouse Gardens.

More than a red carpet strut, the idea was to talk fashion, springtime and the fun of a day at the Derby. And each time the coverage came to Knight, she’d be wearing a new hat for the interview. Easier than changing dresses or switching shoes, the reporter merely donned a new headpiece. Which pleased local milliners as well as high fashion shops like Byck’s and Selman’s, with hats direct from Fifth Avenue spring collections.

Way back in the mists of time, the first Derbys were also fashion parades. The idea wasn’t so much about dashing style and vibrant colors though. More that people dressed for the Derby. The wealthiest could imagine themselves out with the lords and ladies at the Derby at Epsom. But just regular people dressed for the day, too. Business suits and dresses. Like going to church, only it was Churchill.

After World War II, America burst forth in color. Kitchen appliances came in turquoise and red, and cars got two-tone paint jobs. Colorful was in, drab was out – especially at the Kentucky Derby. There was a men’s suit-making factory in Shelbyville called Lee McClain that made a spring specialty of producing brightly-colored sport coats – things you wouldn’t wear any other day of the year but perfect for a day at the races.

Knight entered radio and TV in an era when men held almost all the news media jobs. In a Courier-Journal story in 1963, reporter Carol Sutton traced Knight’s career to a childhood interest in radio growing up in farm country in Illinois. She had her first audition when she was 13.

“I’ve always had this voice,” Knight said to Sutton, in what the reporter called low, pleasant tones. Out of high school Knight joined a radio station in Champaign, Illinois, where she read the “Rattle Review,” an announcement of all the new babies in town.

But Knight had ambition and soon moved to Louisville’s WHAS radio and TV, where she got a chance on the news desk. Her solo show “Small Talk” came on at 5:45 p.m., just before the 6 p.m. news. Despite the show’s trite-sounding title, Knight found interesting guests, including Harry S. Truman, Ronald Reagan, Joan Crawford, Eleanor Roosevelt and Liberace. In 1958, Knight was awarded a national Golden Mike award for a series about the prevention of cervical cancer. In 1963, she grabbed another Golden Mike for a six-part series about the adoption of babies. Knight later became director of the WHAS Crusade for Children. She passed away in 2009.

Despite her fashion reporting, Knight mostly stayed with plain monochromatic business suits and dresses that she thought best for TV. “I think about whether a dress will look different with a change of beads or if I can wear it to the studio then go out in it afterward,” she said. “I wish I were a glamour puss. It would be so exciting, but I just don’t have time.” V

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