Let’s face it: This article is being published this time of year because the Kentucky Derby is this time of year.
It’s a sad thing that this king of summer drinks should be pigeonholed into such a short span. People used to write poetry about it. It was taken as a morning tonic by farmers (not a healthy habit, but they didn’t know that at the time). It soothes the soul on a hot day, even when enjoyed slowly enough that it may as well be tea.
Something about it is magical among cocktails.
The basic recipe is this: In a metal cup, muddle mint leaves with sugar and water. Add crushed ice and bourbon, then garnish with mint sprigs and serve with a straw.
That’s the template, but no two bartenders make theirs exactly alike (though I admit to not having tested every bartender on Earth).
Of course, there are those who create simple syrup in the cup, and those who add already-made simple syrup. The quantity of bourbon varies from two ounces all the way up to four. Many recipes are built for crowds. There are some who stir, and some who swizzle. There are some who do neither, and let the drink combine itself.
I opted not to try out not stirring, because the great prose “The Very Dream of Drinks” by Joshua Soule Smith (c. 1890) states “no stirring allowed.” Having made the drink with and without stirring, I have concluded that the matter is not important. Stir if you so wish.
In the same piece, Smith states that the muddled mint is to be thrown away. In modern recipes, I have only seen it left in. I have since tried it with the mint removed after muddling, and the drink suffers no loss! It’s just as minty, and there are no mint leaves to clog your straw.
Then there are the “traditional southern style” recipes, which involve no muddled mint at all.
There are some who add powdered sugar over the top of the garnishing mint sprigs. I am vehemently against this practice. It looks fine, but the point of the garnishing mint sprigs is to stick your nose in when you take a sip. When you inhale, you should notice a lovely mint aroma, not snort two lines of powdered sugar!
This may sound like a wide variety, but when you go back in time, you find this is just the tip of the iceberg! More on that later.
How not to ruin it:
There are two uncommon steps involved in making a Mint Julep. The first is the muddling of mint.
If you want to make a blueberry gin fizz, you can muddle blueberries in the bottom of a glass as hard as you want. Puree them! But mint is delicate. You must be gentle. You should not so much bruise the mint as caress it.
Many great bartenders remark that the chlorophyll within the leaves is bitter. I don’t disagree, but I think bittering the drink is the wrong way to think about it. If you release the chlorophyll, it clashes with the mint oil. It doesn’t make the drink bitter; it makes you feel like you didn’t add mint at all! To correct both sides of Joshua Soule Smith’s uncomfortably misogynistic simile: “Like a woman’s heart, it gives its sweetest aroma when bruised caressed”
The other important step is crushing the ice. There are three methods: Use an ice crusher (obvious, but how many people have one around?), throw it into a blender (shaved ice works the same. It’s a bit finer than crushed ice. Pulse it instead of blending), or throw it in a Lewis bag and whack the bejeezus out of it with a big mallet. The final option is the most fun, but the least likely to be possible with the equipment at hand.
Where did it all come from?
The first mention of a mint julep in literature is for use as a medicine (it’s not medicine) in 1784. It was prescribed by a doctor to a patient with a number of nasty symptoms, along with a few other remedies. Where it came from, nobody is sure (that is, the Julep, not the illness). The patient doesn’t appear again in history, as far as we know, but the Mint Julep pops up quite regularly.
But why a Julep? Where did the name come from? We don’t know the definitive answer, but the leading theory is often cited by Chris Morris (Master Distiller of Woodford Reserve bourbon):
“Centuries ago, there was an Arabic drink called julab, made with water and rose petals. The beverage had a delicate and refreshing scent that people thought would instantly enhance the quality of their lives.”
If this is the true source of the word, the roots of the Julep would extend farther back even than distillation itself, though it would not be recognizable. The etymology takes a trip through France, as the Julab spread westward across the Mediterranean, where mint was more plentiful than rose petals. Later, it would travel across the Atlantic and continue being made with various recipes until it was first recorded as a “Mint Julep” in 1784.
In the 19th century, though, even when things are supposed to start making sense, we really don’t see much agreement on the meaning of a Mint Julep. It was defined by one source in 1803 as a “dram of spirituous liquor that has mint in it, taken by Virginians in the morning.” It appears many Virginian farmers would drink a Mint Julep as a pick-me-up before a long day’s work. Thankfully, they didn’t drive a car to work.
The drink became very popular in Kentucky. The Kentucky Gazette mentioned horse-race winners receiving julep cups for trophies in 1816. This is the beginning in written history of a very long association with horse racing.
The first drink I did any extensive historical research on was the Old-Fashioned. The first published recipe under that name was in Modern American Drinks, by George J Kappelar. So, I flipped through a copy to do my research. When I noticed the Mint Julep recipes, I was taken aback.
Half a tablespoonful fine sugar dissolved with a
little water in a long thin glass, add a few sprigs
of fresh mint, stems down, fill with fine ice, add
one jigger brandy; mix well with bar-spoon, trim
with fruit and a few sprigs of mint. Serve with straws.
Dissolve one lump of sugar with a little water
in a long thin glass, add a few sprigs of fresh
mint, stems down, fill the glass almost full of fine
ice, then fill with champagne, stirring with spoon
while pouring in the wine; trim with fruit and
sprigs of mint. Serve straws.
One small lump of sugar dissolved with a little
water in a long thin glass, a few sprigs of mint,
stems down, fill with fine ice, add one jigger of
gin; mix, trim with fruit and sprigs of mint.
Serve with straws.
Mint Julep (Southern Style)
Half a tablespoonful fine sugar dissolved in a
long thin glass with a little water, add a few
sprigs of mint, stems down, fill the glass with fine
ice, add half a jigger of brandy, half jigger rum;
mix well, trim with fruit and sprigs of mint.
Prepare in the same manner as Brandy Julep,
using whiskey in place of brandy.
This is a little different from what we’re used to. The only one called a “mint julep” is made with brandy and rum! To think of it today not being a bourbon drink is downright weird! The modern Mint Julep is an absolutely default-bourbon drink.
Even around the late 1880s, when Smith wrote his ode, he described it as though bourbon were always the given ingredient. Yet here, a book written at least 5 years after “The Very Dream of Drinks” gives the “Whiskey Julep” as an alternative to the more ordinary “Brandy Julep.”
In the 19th century, a Mint Julep could be made with any spirits, sugar, and mint, often with fruit. Some recipes call for mint in the bottom of the cup, others mention no mint but the garnishing sprigs.
The Julep took hold in Kentucky over decades, where bourbon was plentiful and brandy, rum, and other liquors were more difficult to come by. Over time, it became a consistently bourbon cocktail, though not quite definitively until the first half of the 20th century.
The Julep, as we know, has an association with horse racing dating back at least to 1816. But today, the drink is almost entirely discussed this time of year: around the Kentucky Derby.
Churchill Downs, where the Derby is held, started serving Mint Juleps in souvenir cups at the event in 1938, for $0.75 ($12.49 in 2015 dollars), though some sources hold that the cocktail has been sold since the beginning, in 1875 (sans the souvenir cup). Over the years, it became an in-disposable tradition.
For roughly the last quarter-century, a partnership between Churchill Downs and the Brown-Forman Spirits company has made the “Early Times Mint Julep” (a Ready-To-Drink cocktail mix, essentially a bottled mix of Early Times whiskey and mint schnapps) the official drink of the Derby. For 2015, the company wants to push its returning bourbon brand Old Forester. So, the “Old Forester Mint Julep” (another RTD cocktail) is the official drink this year. Another Brown-Forman brand, Woodford Reserve, is the official bourbon.
Since 2006, you can also buy (if you’re rich or frivolous enough) a $1,000 Mint Julep in a gold-plated souvenir Julep Cup on Derby Day. The proceeds have gone to a different charity every year.
In most of drinking culture, the Julep was largely left behind when the cocktail dark ages hit in the middle of the 20th century, but the Kentucky Derby kept it alive. Today, it’s still served mostly around this time, but awareness of the Mint Julep seems to be ever-increasing. Hopefully, we won’t always need the Derby as an excuse to discuss this fine, refreshing libation.
I don’t hope for a return of the Julep as a morning sipper, but I do hope people will consider it as a choice on a hot Friday afternoon, when the whole recipe book is calling out options.
Some resources to read more:
THE MINT JULEP: The Very Dream of Drinks
(with footnotes for modern people)