Good drinks tell a story, and this is the story of those drinks. Each week, we'll be serving up a remedial cocktail lesson for bartending beginners to help you get the most out of your glass, with recipes, interviews, and histories coming right up.

Described as "a peculiarly American beverage" by legendary mixologist Jerry Thomas, the mint julep has held the crown as the official drink of the Kentucky Derby for nearly a century. But since "julep" historically meant "medicine" (at some point someone was making a joke), there have been lots of contenders with similar names and varying ingredients. Perhaps the variety we know best is so successful because a mint julep is just an Old Fashioned with mint instead of bitters. Nevertheless it's a fresh, refreshing cocktail whose time has circled around the track once again.

An early recipe for the drink comes from British Captain Frederick Marryat's 1840 book Second Series of A Diary in America. Warning: Flowery language ahead.

[T]he ingredients of the real mint-julep are as follows. I learnt how to make them, and succeeded pretty well. Put into a tumbler about a dozen sprigs of the tender shoots of mint, upon them put a spoonful of white sugar, and equal proportions of peach and common brandy, so as to fill it up one-third, or perhaps a little less. Then take rasped or pounded ice, and fill up the tumbler. Epicures rub the lips of the tumbler with a piece of fresh pine-apple, and the tumbler itself is very often incrusted outside with stalactites of ice.

Unafraid to state the obvious, the sea captain concludes that "As the ice melts, you drink." Some better writing on the mint julep and Derby Day comes from Kentucky native Hunter Thompson, who rode to early acclaim with his 1970 essay "The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved." Cited as the first example of "gonzo" style, it also marks his first encounter with Ralph Steadman, the British illustrator with whom he would become deeply associated.

“Just pretend you’re visiting a huge outdoor loony bin,” Thompson told Steadman, whom he proceeded to get violently drunk. As is usual of Thompson's sports reporting, he paid little attention to the race, which he basically snuck into without press credentials, and spared no detail about himself and the other assembled lunatics at Churchill Downs. "Thousands of raving, stumbling drunks, getting angrier and angrier as they lose more and more money," he wrote, "By mid-afternoon they'll be guzzling mint juleps with both hands and vomiting on each other between races."

Today, the mint julep is as much a symptom as a cause of the race's decadence and depravity. At the track, the preferred vessels for the drink are collectible glasses made for each year's race, the equivalent of Pokemon cards for monied adults. In a display that can only be described as American, for the 2008 race Churchill Downs commissioned the world's largest mint julep glass, which was six feet tall and held over 200 gallons of julep. "Extra-premium custom-made" mint juleps have been sold at the race for $1000 each since 2006. Those are served in gold-plated cups with silver straws and concocted from Woodford Reserve bourbon, mint imported from Ireland, spring water ice cubes from the Bavarian Alps, and sugar from Australia. Proceeds from their sales go to charities for retired race horses.

Since you might not be able to gather those particular ingredients in time to make a julep for the race, I swung by a San Francisco bar, The Alembic, that does its own tasty mix. There, the bartenders crush ice for the drink by taking a canvas bag full of ice and slamming the shit out of it with a wooden mallet right on the bar. Mallet pictured above. Order one if the place gets too loud: it shuts everyone up very quickly. Alembic general manager Burton Daniel shares this recipe with SFist.

The Alembic's Mint Julep
2 oz. bourbon of choice
2 barspoons of sugar
Around 10-12 mint leaves (no stems)
About 5 dashes of water (roughly a quarter ounce, more or less) to help dissolve the sugar

The ideal glassware is the typical silver julep tin. If you are substituting with glass, be sure to pre-chill the glassware before making the cocktail.

Combine mint leaves, sugar, and water in the bottom of the glass and muddle all together. Note: Muddle does not mean smash into tiny bits. You want to press and massage the oils out of the mint leaves and make sure to rub the leaves around the entire glass to help spread the flavor.

Add 2oz of the Bourbon you most prefer. Here at Alembic we like a wheated whiskey in our juleps such as WL Weller or Bernheims. Fill the glass a little over halfway with crushed ice and stir until the outside of the glass gets frosted. Next fill and pack the rest of the glass to overflowing (think sno-cone) with crushed ice and garnish with a sprig of mint. Wrap the glass in a napkin to make sure it stays frosty and use a short straw to drink the julep so that your nose is always up close and personal with that mint sprig.

The crushed ice is just as essential to this cocktail as the whiskey or mint. DO NOT skimp on this step. Crush the ice as finely as possible and strain out the excess water before adding to the julep.

There are a million and one julep recipes out in the world, but this one reflects the most universally accepted version. This one gets my seal of approval as a bartender of 15 years and as a proud Tennessean.

Previously: Learning To Drink Vol. 15: Sherry Baby
All volumes of Learning To Drink.