Is there a recipe you would brawl over? A cherished tradition you would provoke the masses for? A way of doing things that, if averted from, you would shake a fist at your own mother?
I think we all have at least one of those.
And one of the most popular, rage invoking, passionately cherished, and dearly held southern staples that evokes such emotion is none other than the classic Mint Julep.
That’s right folks, take a seat, and lend me your eyeballs as I take you through a brief journey of the famed cocktail, and hopefully share with you a thing or two that you didn’t know about it before.
George Washington may have enjoyed them
It’s a smash hit at the Kentucky Derby
Its roots stretch back over 1,000 years
Theodore Roosevelt once publicly claimed he once failed to finish a Mint Julep
The inception of the Mint Julep is a notorious fire starter as some mark the earliest mentions to be anywhere from 900 A.D (perhaps even earlier) to the early 18th century. The first use of the Mint Julep was solely medicinal in the pre-civil war era, specifically in Virginia.
It was used to settle upset stomachs and also acted as an ‘antifogmatic’, meaning something to take first thing in the morning to stave off illness.
Also used if you have a bad case of the Mondays, amiright?
The earliest ancestor of the Mint Julep was merely rum, water, and sugar. Mint wasn’t added for quite some time, but it was later found to aid in helping the rum go easy on the stomach when mixed together.
It wasn’t until the elixir travelled from the northern to the southern United States around the early 1800’s that the recipe started to get a bit more specific, especially with the new preference for the base of the cocktail to change from rum to bourbon.
For a while, the base liquor of the Mint Julep varied from rum, whiskey, and even brandy. But there is a particularly interesting story as to how bourbon became the preferred base of the Mint Julep.
In 1791 an Excise Tax (more notably, The Whiskey Tax) was established to help pay the massive debts that the American Revolution incurred, and Americans….were not happy.
Americans felt betrayed by such a tax under the new regime of one President George Washington - I’m guessing you’ve heard of him. And, in true American fashion, a rebellion against the tax took place from 1791-1794.
However, word started to spread in the north that the tax was not as tightly enforced in the south, (and almost wholly ignored) especially in Kentucky.
A great migration of sorts ensued where thousands of farmers came to settle on free land and plant rye to make and enjoy whiskey. Free land and no tax on whiskey? Sign me up!
They brought their favorite Julep recipes along with then, leading to an increase in rye whiskey being used in the Mint Julep.
Brandy was still probably preferred, but it was more expensive and less plentiful than rye. People made do with what they had, and I’m sure there were many who preferred the new spirit.
That switch from brandy to rye only accelerated during the phylloxera epidemic of the mid-1800s.
To save you the Google search, it was essentially irritating ass bugs that ate A LOT of grapevines needed to make wine, cognac, etc. Brandy was hard to find in France, even more so across the Atlantic.
This epidemic infected France’s grapevines and made cognac production next to impossible. It also didn’t help that the pesky Whiskey Tax also applied to American-made Brandy, which would make the conversion back to bourbon in the south a no-brainer at the time.
And then, there was that time the government tried to tell us we all had a drinking problem, and that making us quit cold turkey was definitely the best move.
Yep, the 18th Amendment made alcohol production and consumption illegal in almost all cases. Growing rye would look suspicious, but corn...corn had all kinds of uses.
Corn can feed people, livestock, dragons...probably. But did you know that legally speaking, bourbon whiskey has to contain at least 51% corn?
That, in part, led to making corn the ultimate supreme of crops and converting non-believing Julep Junkies over to, you guessed it, bourbon.
It’s hard to offer up one specific recipe for the Mint Julep as there are, literally, so many. There are infinite rules that some people hold as Holy as the bible, while some people insist on a remix of an old classic.
To muddle the mint, or let it sit for 15 minutes? To serve in a pewter cup or an icy glass? Shaved ice or crushed? My god, what is the truth?!
The Mint Julep is said to be properly enjoyed only if you have time to wait for its preparation. It was not meant for a patron in a hurry, as the preparation and consumption of The Mint Julep is meant to be sacred.
Why, the matters of the freshness of the mint, allowing your sugar proper time to dissolve, and ensuring the cup you sip it from is as icy as earthly possible are no small feats to ensure.
City Slickers were not welcome to behold the majesty of the Mint Julep. This is a drink for the more relaxed southern lifestyle.
Unfortunately, this is why the Mint Julep fell out of popularity around the mid-1900s. As the world got busier, the customers got antsier, and they just didn’t have the time or the patience revolving around the Mint Juleps' care and preparation.
The Mint Julep was also considered a drink solely for the elite as it was offered only at expensive hotel bars post-civil war.
There was also the issue of crushed ice being a CRUCIAL component of the drink, and ice was considered an elusive and expensive luxury to come by at the time.
It was also basically considered LAW to drink it from a silver cup so that you can see the frostiness of the drink on the outside. And, come on, who has money lying around for a silver-plated cup during The Great Depression?
Now we can’t talk about The famed Mint Julep without talking about the bartenders that made them famous. There were many enslaved and freed black people who took up trades in the hospitality industry to safeguard and/or obtain their freedom.
Naturally, many of them became bartenders. Cato Alexander, Tom Bullock, and John Dabney are just three of the many bartenders during the 19th century who brought many cocktails, including the Mint Julep, to fame.
John Dabney was a slave who worked at the Sweet Springs Resort in West Virginia. During his time there he served an infamous cocktail called The Julep a la Dabney. Kind of catchy, right? His cocktail became a flayout tourist attraction in the 1860’s.
The Julep a la Dabney was served in a MASSIVE tin bucket with bourbon, mint, and sugar, stuffed with almost a gallon of ice, and the bucket itself was also sat in a massive amount of ice to ensure that it never melted, and topped with several layers of mint and fruit.
This beverage was meant to serve multiple people, and patrons from far and wide came to see what all the fuss was about.
One of those patrons was none other than Edward VII, Prince of Wales. I mean, come on, how many Princes do YOU know?
With the money he earned while bartending, Dabney was able to freedom for himself and his wife. Wait, that’s a Prince and a happy ending in one story - did I just write a Disney movie?
Cato Alexander was a freed slave who opened a bar in New York which was notorious for his food and drink mixes.
Some historians believe that Cato is the one who created the Mint Julep, as he was notorious for creating all sorts of wacky cocktails that were made popular all over the U.S including his South Carolina Milk Punch and Virginia EggNog.
One of Cato’s famed regulars was one George Washington, who raved about Cato’s impeccable service, food, and atmospheric flourish.
Cato was known to brag about this...quite often. I’d have a thought or two to brag about myself if I had the pleasure of serving the first President of the United States.
Tom Bullock was a bartender at the St. Louis Country Club, and was the 1st black man to write and publish a mixology book.
As with Cato Alexander, some historians also credit Tim Bullock for creating the Mint Julep as his preparation of the cocktail was said to be the most undeniable and irresistible among men.
So much so that he was held as a witness in a libel case for one Colonel Theodore Roosevelt against the media.
A KNOWN lover of Mint Juleps, Roosevelt was pissed because the media repeatedly called him a drunk who couldn’t keep it together. He denied all of these allegations, naturally, even going as far to say that he had never been intoxicated in his life.
The proof? Roosevelt claimed that he once ordered a Mint Julep prepared by Tom Bullock and didn’t finish it.
However, a local newspaper, The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, claimed the President was a liar because it was impossible to not finish a cocktail crafted by the incomparable Tom Bullock. They stated:
“Who was ever known to drink just a part of one of Tom’s [cocktails]…Are the Colonel’s powers of self-restraint altogether transcendent? Have we found the living superman at last?”
Woah, man. Talk about shots fired. But hey, a man who can be shot while giving a speech and just keep on talking is as close to Superman as I’ve seeen.
No doubt you’ve heard of The one and only Kentucky Derby; the annual horse race held at the Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky since 1875. But did you know that the Mint Julep has been the staple drink consumed at this event since 1938?
Rumor has it that it all started in 1877 when famed Polish actress Helena Modjeska, an esteemed guest of the owner, Merriwether Lewis Clark Jr., was offered a Mint Julep meant to be passed around amongst the guests.
But she loved the drink so much that she kept the whole drink to herself. She even ordered two more to boot!
It’s said that soon after making the Mint Julep the staple beverage, Merriwether Lewis Clark Jr. would grow mint leaves around the racetrack to ensure that the drinks and good times would never stop flowing.
Today, an estimated 120,000 Mint Juleps are sold each year at the Kentucky Derby. That’s using roughly over 2,000 pounds of mint, 60,000 pounds of ice, and 10,000 bottles of Old Forester bourbon mix. Talk about throwing a party you won’t forget!
There is also a specialty Mint Julep that is sold in Kentucky for the low, low price of $1,000+ a glass. Don’t be too alarmed, though.
The specialty ingredients for that cocktail include specialty mint from Ireland, ice from the bavarian alps, and sugar flown in first-class from Australia. The proceeds of the epic libations are donated to charities shortly after the end of the Derby.
Not to mention that the glorious concoction would be served inside of a silver-plated cup and slurped through a golden straw. Swanky!
Over the years there have been many songs, poems, and passionate declarations of love for the Mint Julep. Some of the most famous declarations include a poem by J. Soule Smith, a song made famous by Ray Charles, and a letter written by a Lieutenant General responding to someone requesting the recipe for a Mint Julep.
J. Soule Smith was a freemason and law professor of the 1800s who had written many articles and publications. One of the most famous of those is a poem titled,
The Mint Julep. A small portion reads:
Then comes the zenith of man’s pleasure. Then comes the julep – the mint julep. Who has not tasted one has lived in vain... It is the very dream of drinks, the vision of sweet quaffings.” If that doesn’t make your mouth water, I just don’t know what will!
Anyone breathing knows who famous singer, pianist, and songwriter Ray Charles is. In 1961 he did a cover for an already popular song, ‘A Mint Julep’, and knocked it out of the park and right to the top of the R&apm;B charts.
A little snippet of the tune goes something like:
Now I don’t want to bore you with my troubles, but from now on I’ll be thinking double. I’m through with flirtin’ and drinkin’ whiskey. I got six extra children from a-getting frisky. A Mint Julep….was the cause of it all.
I’ll have what he’s having, and make it a double!
And lastly, Lieutenant General S. B Buckner Jr. of the Confederate Army received a letter from General William D. Connar asking him how to make a Mint Julep. Buckner Jr. responded:
A mint julep is not the product of a FORMULA. It is a CEREMONY and must be performed by a gentleman possessing a true sense of the artistic, a deep reverence for the ingredients, and a proper appreciation of the occasion. It is a rite that must not be entrusted to a novice, a statistician, nor a Yankee.”
Whoops, I guess that counts me out then!
As you marinate on the details here, why not kick back and relax under the warm coat of the sun, and get yourself better acquainted with a Mint Julep?
Get real up close and personal.
Take the time to admire the sweet, spicy, and icy swirl of it on your tongue, and sit with the journey this cocktail took from lands and times unknown to the frosty cup in your hand.
Consume this piece of history. Revel in this portion of American tradition. Commemorate a fragment of time that will never be forgotten. Cheers, friend.
8 mint leaves
1/4 ounce simple syrup
2 ounces bourbon
Garnish: mint sprig
In a Julep cup or rocks glass, lightly muddle the mint leaves in the simple syrup.
Add the bourbon then pack the glass tightly with crushed ice.
Stir until the cup is frosted on the outside.
Top with more crushed ice to form an ice dome, and garnish with a mint sprig.
Enjoy. Yes, this is a requirement.
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