What is the bourbon for a mint julep?

The mint julep is a classic Southern cocktail that dates back to the early 19th century. It’s made with four key ingredients: mint, bourbon, simple syrup, and crushed ice. But when it comes to the bourbon specifically, there are differing opinions on what type provides the best tasting mint julep.

What makes a good mint julep bourbon?

There are a few key characteristics that make for an optimal bourbon to use in a mint julep:

  • High rye content – Many bourbon experts recommend choosing a bourbon with a high rye content (at least 20%) as the base spirit for a mint julep. Rye adds spiciness and complexity.
  • Aged 4 years or more – A minimum of 4 years aging in charred oak barrels allows the bourbon to develop rich flavors and take on notes from the wood.
  • 80-100 proof – Mint juleps are often thought of as a warm weather cocktail. Going above 100 proof (50% ABV) can make the drink uncomfortably boozy when serving it chilled.
  • Smooth taste – Since a mint julep highlights the flavor of the mint and bourbon itself, you want a bourbon with a smooth taste and palate.

Traditional Kentucky mint julep bourbons

The mint julep originated in Kentucky, so many argue you should go with a tried and true Kentucky bourbon for an authentic mint julep experience. Here are some popular choices:

  • Maker’s Mark – A wheated Kentucky bourbon aged 5-6 years with a smooth, easy-drinking taste. It’s on the sweeter side with notes of honey.
  • Woodford Reserve – Aged for at least 6 years, this bourbon has a crisp taste with hints of fruit, mint, and chocolate. It’s distilled in Versailles, KY.
  • Four Roses – A brand with a long history and reputation for quality. Their standard “Yellow Label” bourbon mixes spice from the high rye content with oak vanilla flavors.
  • Jim Beam – An affordable 4-year-aged Kentucky standby. It’s a bit bolder with more oak notes, but still works well in a mint julep.

Other recommended bourbons

Bourbon does not have to be made in Kentucky to be excellent. Here are some other great bourbon options from around the US to consider for mint juleps:

  • Buffalo Trace – This Kentucky bourbon has a good balance of corn sweetness and rye spiciness.
  • Bulleit – Made in Kentucky with a medium rye content. It’s aged for at least 6 years with oaky, spicy notes.
  • Michter’s US*1 – This Kentucky bourbon is aged for 8 years. It’s rich and smooth with toffee and caramel flavors.
  • Evan Williams Single Barrel – An extra-aged (around 10 years) Kentucky bourbon with bold oak flavors.
  • Knob Creek – Aged for 9 years in Kentucky, it delivers an aromatic, full-bodied bourbon ideal for mint juleps.
  • Blanton’s – A pricier single barrel bourbon known for its balance and smoothness.

How does bourbon choice impact the mint julep experience?

While there are many excellent bourbons to select from, the specific one used will impact the overall taste and experience of the mint julep. Here are some ways the bourbon choice affects the cocktail:

  • Intensity of flavor – Higher proof bourbons will impart more intense whiskey flavors. Lower proof ones will allow fresh mint to shine.
  • Spiciness – Bourbons with a higher rye content will come across as spicier and more complex.
  • Sweetness – Bourbons aged longer in oak have more caramel/vanilla sweetness to balance the mint.
  • Mouthfeel – Smooth, mellow bourbons make for a rounder, richer sip.
  • Aroma – Bourbon’s notes of vanilla, oak, and spice add to the mint julep’s fragrance.

Test a few quality bourbons with your preferred mint julep recipe to see how each transforms the cocktail experience. It comes down to personal taste preferences.

How do bartenders choose a mint julep bourbon?

Bartenders tasked with serving up perfect mint juleps will be thoughtful in choosing an appropriate bourbon. Here are some considerations they make:

  • They select a bourbon that accentuates fresh mint flavors rather than overpowering them.
  • They reach for a bourbon with some sweetness to complement the sugar content from simple syrup.
  • They prefer bourbons aged at least 4 years for necessary smoothness when served chilled.
  • They like balanced, versatile bourbons that appeal to varied customer preferences.
  • They consider the overall menu and price point – using rail bourbon for casual bars or top-shelf for upscale venues.
  • They account for popularity – flagship brands like Maker’s Mark or Woodford Reserve are crowd-pleasers.

But bartenders will also encourage customers to specify a preferred bourbon. The best practice is to taste a bartender’s default bourbon choice first, then sample a few other options to identify your ideal mint julep profile.

What’s the best bourbon for a mint julep?

With so many factors impacting the flavor experience, there is no single “best” bourbon choice for mint juleps. However, here are some excellent all-around options:

  • Maker’s 46 – Maker’s Mark standard bourbon with added intensity from French oak staves.
  • Four Roses Single Barrel – Their Small Batch bourbon aged further as a single barrel.
  • Old Forester 86 Proof – Offers a lighter, crisp mint julep experience.
  • Wild Turkey 101 – This higher proof iconic bourbon still lets the mint shine.
  • Bulleit 10 Year – The extra aging gives a smooth mellowness.

For a truly authentic taste, try a mint julep at the Kentucky Derby using a quality Kentucky bourbon like Woodford Reserve or Maker’s Mark. And don’t forget the silver julep cup and sprig of fresh mint!


The choice of bourbon has a definite impact on a mint julep’s flavor. While Kentucky bourbons are traditional, excellent options come from all over. Seek out a bourbon with a smooth taste, notes of oak and vanilla, and a decent amount of aging. Sip your julep slowly to appreciate how each spirit transforms the drinking experience. Bartenders can provide guidance, but finding your personal bourbon taste for mint juleps is rewarding. Let the debate continue on this iconic Southern cocktail’s ingredients!

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