Here’s the thing about the Kentucky Derby—maybe you’re in it for the horses or maybe you’re in it for the big hats, but either way, it’s a fabulous excuse to drink cocktails during the day. That’s where mint juleps come in.

Beyond Derby Day, the mint julep recipe is a great one to keep in your back pocket, especially considering how mint grows like a, well, weed in many Pittsburgh backyards. So how do you turn your crop into a delicious beverage?

Pork & Beans bartender Michael R. Anderson, who moved to Pittsburgh after residing close to Churchill Downs in Louisville, weighs in with a local take on the classic cocktail along with some expertise and techniques for making your own. (And if you’d rather leave the swizzling to the experts, see below where we list restaurants currently serving juleps.)

From Michael’s lips to your glass, to your lips:

The mint julep is a drink that screams seasonality with its amazing bouquet of fresh mint, and an aroma that really takes you somewhere.

The vessel in which the cocktail is served is so important that it can be considered an ingredient. Metal julep cups work with the crushed ice to create a drink that is beyond cold. If you don’t have metal cups, a rocks glass or small mason jar will suffice.

Make sure to use fresh mint, and a 15- to 20-minute ice water bath will help your mint last longer throughout the day. Use the mint leaves, separated from the stalks, to aromatize the inside of the julep cup. You can do this with your hands or a cocktail muddler.

Mint julep tools and ingredients. Photo by: Tom O’Connor
Mint julep tools and ingredients. Photo by: Tom O’Connor
Aromatizing the cup — the hand method. Photo by: Tom O’Connor
Aromatizing the cup — the hand method. Photo by: Tom O’Connor

Use your hands to gently rub a small bunch of fresh leaves inside the cup. If you prefer a muddler, use it softly, being careful not to bruise the leaves, which will release chlorophyll and a bitter taste. Keep or discard the leaves in the cup depending on whether you want to taste more mint or more whiskey in your julep.

Next, add a tablespoon (1/2 oz.) or less of rich sugar syrup. Make the syrup by combining two parts sugar (use raw or turbinado for a more caramelized taste) and one part water. Simmer over low heat until the sugar dissolves. Simple syrup keeps over a month when refrigerated.

Add 2 oz. of your favorite whiskey: Bourbon whiskey, Tennessee whiskey, and Rye whiskey are all good choices.

Ice is next. Add plenty of crushed ice to your cup. Form a rich “snow cone” type mound over the top edge of the glass. With enough ice, a julep can be a cocktail that lasts for a little while even on a hot day.

One final tip: Brush a healthy pinch of mint sprigs across all sides of the icy julep cup before serving. People notice the aroma across the room when you use this technique. Insert a straw and your mint sprigs into the ice at the same spot along the rim of the cup. This way, you can revel in the aroma as you enjoy your drink. Cheers.

Finishing touches on the julep. Photo by: Tom O’Connor
Finishing touches on the julep. Photo by: Tom O’Connor
Michael R. Anderson, bartender at Pork & Beans. Photo by Tom O’Connor.
Michael R. Anderson, bartender at Pork & Beans. Photo by Tom O’Connor.

Rather have someone else do the julep-making for you? Here are a few good bets around town:

Pork & Beans features a classic mint julep served uniquely in a soup can.  It makes for one big cocktail and pairs well with almost anything at the pork-centric smokehouse. They’ll be open on Derby Day (Saturday) from 4 – 11 p.m.

Union Standard’s mint julep features Old Grand-Dad whiskey, fresh mint and demerara sugar. They’ll be throwing a Derby Happy Hour this Saturday from 5 – 7 p.m. with $8 juleps.

Block 292 will have a Triple Crown Happy Hour, Saturday, May 6 from 4 to 8 p.m. featuring Wigle Mint Juleps, and a new bar snack menu.

The Biergarten at Hotel Monaco is serving juleps all day Saturday with live Kentucky Derby coverage throughout the day.

Tom O'Connor

Tom O'Connor is a photographer and writer currently based in Pittsburgh.