The Mint Julep
There are few cocktails with the pomp and circumstance of the mint julep. You probably are aware of its association with the Kentucky Derby. You might even know some claim it’s heresy to serve a mint julep in anything but a silver cup full of shaved or crushed ice, Kentucky bourbon, and garnished with a fresh sprig of native spearmint. There’s even a prescribed etiquette for drinking a mint julep: one should hold the cup by either the band on the base or top lip so that one’s hand doesn’t warm the cup.
Despite the pageantry surrounding it, the mint julep consists of only four ingredients: bourbon, ice, sugar, and mint. It’s the perfect cocktail to segue into summer and warmer weather. In fact, National Mint Julep Day is May 30, so there’s still time to explore this refreshing and quintessential American cocktail. And if you really want to get to know the mint julep, please read on.…
The mint julep, you might be surprised to learn, originated in the Middle East. I’m certain this historical fact is neither taught in Kentucky schools nor acknowledged among polite Derby society. A “julab” was a beauty elixir made from rose or violet petals and water for Persian royalty. Over the centuries it was adopted by the Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, and later by the Italians and Spanish who replaced flowers with mint. They began calling it a “julep” and used it as a health tonic. Michelangelo is said to have enjoyed a daily julep.
The julep reached America in the 18th century where it was mixed with rum (and later with bourbon whiskey) and consumed both as a medicinal tonic and a kickstart to the day. While bourbon was distilled throughout the American frontier, the spirit thrived in Kentucky due to an abundant corn crop, oak forests (for barrels), and limestone filtered water.
As bourbon distilled itself into the fabric of Kentucky society, it naturally became part of the state’s horse racing culture. So too the mint julep. Meriwether Lewis Clark, Jr., who founded the Kentucky Derby in 1873, is said to have grown a patch of mint behind the Churchill Downs Club for the juleps he served his VIP guests. The mint julep eventually was named the Kentucky Derby’s official drink in 1938.
The cocktail was also popular in Washington, DC, among the political establishment. One of the most influential bars to serve the mint julep was—still is—the Round Robin Bar in the Willard Hotel. The bar opened in 1847 and it is said that US Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky shipped in a barrel of bourbon so a proper mint julep could be mixed. President Teddy Roosevelt was a mint julep fan. He cultivated mint in the White House kitchen garden and used it in the juleps he served to his cabinet members after tennis matches. You won’t be surprised to learn that Roosevelt fortified his mint juleps with a big splash of brandy.
Despite its popularity back in the day, the mint julep isn’t easy to find these days. A couple of bartenders I asked had no idea what I was talking about. I get that it’s kind of a labor-intensive drink in the classic form with its crushed ice, simple syrup, and muddled mint. But how can you call yourself a serious bartender and not know the mint julep? Really!
The mint julep might feel intimidating, but don’t let that stop you from enjoying this most American cocktail. If you know the rules, you can break the rules. Here’s how I break the rules:
• Dissolve ½ ounce of superfine sugar in 1 ounce of hot water in an old-fashioned glass (or julep cup, of course).
• Add 8-10 mint leaves and press them lightly with a spoon—you want to draw the oil from the mint leaves, not beat it out of them.
• Add 2 ounces of bourbon, fill the glass with cracked ice (I wrap ice in a tea towel and smack it with a crab mallet), and stir.
• Garnish with a mint sprig and serve.
You don’t need an elaborate hat or colorful bow tie to enjoy a mint julep. But they certainly add some fun. Cheers! ▼
Rich Barnett is the author of The Discreet Charms of a Bourgeois Beach Town, and Fun with Dick and James.