Derby Shocker: Does Your Mint Julep Contain GMOs?

Most Kentucky bourbon is made with genetically modified corn. We’ll tell you what to buy instead.

mint julep
A Derby downer: Most good ol' Kentucky bourbon is made with GMO corn. (Photo: Creative Commons / flickr4jazz)
Clare Leschin-Hoar's stories on seafood and food politics have appeared in Scientific American, Eating Well and elsewhere.

Thousands of frosty mint juleps in shiny silver cups will be pushed across the bar towards thirsty patrons at Churchill Downs this weekend, as folks enjoy one of spring’s most treasured events: the Kentucky Derby.

The mint julep has been a staple of the race stretching back to 1938. Muddled mint leaves, smooth Kentucky bourbon, a little sugar, and voila: one of life’s little joys in a cup. And that’s the way it’s been for nearly 75 years.

But what hasn’t remained constant over those same 75 years is agriculture. In 1995, the first genetically modified corn was approved and planted in the U.S. According to the USDA, by 2011, GMO corn made up 88 percent of the crop. So what does corn have to do with that tasty julep? Plenty.

By law, bourbon must be made using 51 percent corn, but most distillers use 70-80 percent, explains expert Charles Cowdery, author of BOURBON, STRAIGHT: The Uncut and Unfiltered Story of American Whiskey. Corn is used for body and sweetness, but grains like rye, wheat, and barley malt are added for flavor, and for the enzymes needed to convert the corn’s starch into sugar. But whether or not any genetically modified material itself makes it into the final product is unlikely.

“If you understand the distillation process, nothing gets into the final product that can’t be vaporized. If a solid is small enough to be carried by vapor, then conceivably, it can move from one state to another,” says Cowdery.

Indeed, whether or not GMO material is finding its way into the end product is only one facet. A much larger issue is that distillers now have very little choice when trying to avoid corn that’s been genetically tweaked.

“It has always been an issue among our members,” Eric Gregory, president of the Kentucky Distillers’ Association (KDA), tells TakePart. “But [that concern] has more to do with selling into overseas markets.”

Markets like Japan and Europe have strict GMO labeling and importation laws, which is one reason Four Roses has insisted on GMO-free corn.

“We pay a premium to get the best of the non-GMO crops, but honestly, I don’t know how long we can keep that up. There are fewer and fewer farms that grow it,” says Jim Rutledge, master distiller for Four Roses.

Delicious as it is, Four Roses is small potatoes when it comes to size. The company produces about 550,000 cases of bourbon a year, compared to nearly 10 times that amount put out by industry giant Jim Beam. (Overall, Kentucky currently has nearly 5 million barrels of bourbon aging.)

The issue of genetically modified corn isn’t new. During the time Rutledge was a board member of the KDA, he says the topic came up often, specifically, with an eye on how it could impact the industry.

“But now, it’s almost become a moot point, because there just isn’t a choice anymore,” he says.

Could that change? Maybe, at least in the artisanal, small-batch category. Gregory says that some small craft distillers are beginning to express interest in growing their own corn, but it’s too early to tell if that kind of movement takes root. In the meantime, we’re here to make sure you drink your julep properly without embarrassing yourself. The best advice we found was on Cowdery’s blog:

“How you make it isn’t as important as how you drink it. A mint julep is not like a cocktail in the ordinary sense. It is more like a shooter. It should be made quickly, served immediately and consumed promptly, before the ice starts to melt and water the drink,” he writes.

Cheers!

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Red Tea Mint Julep Recipe

Take a frozen julep cup, and in it place 10-12 mint leaves and one ounce of rooibos tea syrup*. Muddle. Add two ounces of Four Roses bourbon. Then add crushed ice and stir. Top with more crushed ice, and garnish with a layer of Peychaud bitters across the top. Add fresh, bountiful mint sprigs.  

* Rooibos tea syrup: Add two tablespoons of loose rooibos tea leaves to two cups of hot water. Let steep for 5-7 minutes, strain tea leaves out. Add 2 cups of sugar and 1½ teaspoon of salt. Whisk to incorporate, let cool, refrigerate.

—Courtesy of Bob McCoy,  Eastern Standard Kitchen

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