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Derby fans jostle for juleps

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The mint julep is a tradition as old as the Kentucky Derby itself, as much a part of Derby tradition as bugles and roses. Rarely seen the rest of the year, this potent concoction is the national drink for a few hours every first weekend in May.

The julep is the official toast to the winning horse, but fans at Derby parties tend to start long before the finish. Most Southerners will admit that it's an acquired taste, this mixture of bourbon, sugar, mint, and ice.

"I like the taste. I grew up with them," native Kentuckian Norma Taylor says with a smile. "You have to like bourbon...and mint."

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Like another Southern delicacy, Coca-Cola, the julep was concocted to mask the taste of medicine. It caught on among the healthy.

Legendary U.S. Sen. Henry Clay served juleps on his Kentucky plantation, and introduced Northerners to the beverage when he went to Washington. In the 1850s, Clay brought his recipe to Washington's Willard Hotel.

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Willard bartender Jim Hewes still makes juleps based on Clay's recipe: "A teaspoon of sugar, six or eight red-stem mint leaves, and a small measure of bourbon," Hews says.

He churns that mixture, then adds a lot of ice, more bourbon, a splash of water, a sprig of mint and a sprinkling of sugar on top.

Controversy rages over the minutiae of a proper julep -- chipped or shaved ice, crystalline or boiled sugar -- but julep purists agree that a real mint julep must be served in a frosted silver julep glass. And, of course, made with the finest Kentucky bourbon. Moonlight and magnolias are optional.



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