Continuing on for National Bourbon Heritage Month, I’m covering what I think is possibly the most popular drink in Kentucky, especially on the first Saturday in May. Yep, that’s right, it’s the Mint Julep. Now, you may have a had a Mint Julep at one time or another and thought..”what’s all the hype about? This really isn’t that special.” Well, more than likely you had a version of Mint Julep that used a special mix or simple syrup to make it easier for the bartender to mix. I understand your trepidation. I too was the victim of sub-par Mint Juleps for years and thought that I could never enjoy one. I would drink the obligatory Julep at a Derby gathering or at a friend’s party, so as to not be rude to the hostess. Then one day, I decided to look up the original recipe and make my own. I was pleasantly surprised with how refreshing it was! It’s very similar to a Mojito, but with bourbon instead of rum. I have a new found love for the Mint Julep and will be serving the original recipe, made with good bourbon, at one of my next cocktail parties. The great thing about this drink, is that it’s also perfect for tailgating. It’s easy to make, with just a few ingredients, and when done correctly, it’s a delicious crowd pleaser!
Before it became the official drink of the Kentucky Derby, the Mint Julep had a fairly shady past. No one knows for sure exactly when it was concocted, but the first known history starts in medical journals. The name Julep is used to describe a sweet drink, usually used to administer unappetizing medications. It is a Persian word, literally meaning “Rose Water”. It makes its first appearance in 1784 when it was said “”sickness at the stomach, with frequent retching, and, at times, a difficulty of swallowing. I then prescribed her an emetic, some opening powders, and a mint julep”. John Davis also makes mention of it in an 1803 publication where he said, “a dram of spirituous liquor that has mint steeped in it, taken by Virginians of a morning.” He doesn’t specify what liquor is used, but more than likely, knowing the Virginians of that time period, it was some sort of Bourbon or Whiskey!
Esteemed Kentuckian, Henry Clay, took the Mint Julep on its first road trip. Mr. Clay took it with him to Washington D.C. where he introduced it to the Round Robin Bar at the esteemed Willard Hotel. From there, its popularity sky rocketed! Without Ole Henry’s influence, this drink may have faded away into the background of history and we would be enjoying a different Bourbon drink on the First Saturday in May.
Many variations of Juleps have been popular throughout history, depending on the region you are in and the booze you had available. Like I said earlier, it’s fairly similar to a Mojito. It was also made with Gin and different types of muddled fruit. Remember, a Julep is a sweet drink, so it can be done a lot of different ways, we just prefer the mint version here in Horse Country!
An 1862 version of Bar-Tender’s Guide: How to Mix Drinks, written by Jerry Thomas,
gives recipes for five variations of the Mint Julep. They use a variety of spirits mixed with mint and sugar. He says that the Mint Julep is a “…a peculiarly American beverage…” It made the voyage overseas with the help of British Captain Frederick Maryatt, who included the recipe in his book, Second Series of a Diary in American. He describes the Mint Julep as follows…”There are many varieties of Mint Julep, such as those composed of Claret, Madiera, ect, but the ingredients of the real mint-julep are as follows. I learnt how to make them, and succeeded pretty well. Put into a tumbler about a dozen sprigs of the tender shoots of mint, upon them put a spoonful of white sugar, and equal proportions of peach and common brandy, so as to fill it up one-third, or perhaps a little less. Then take rasped or pounded ice, and fill up the tumbler. Epicures rub the lips of the tumbler with a piece of fresh pine-apple, and the tumbler itself is very often incrusted outside with stalactites of ice. As the ice melts, you drink.” It’s a recipe that is open for interpretation and the addition of many different add ins. The result is always the same, a sweet drink that is pleasant to sip on a hot, southern afternoon. In the end, the Bourbon based Julep edged out Gin, and the simplified version with muddled sugar and mint has become the version of choice. A recipe from 1916 is one of my favorite descriptions of the Mint Julep:
“The famous old barroom, which was approached by a spiral staircase. Here in this dark, cool room, scented with great masses of fragrant mint that lay upon mountains of crushed ice, in the olden days were created the White Sulphur mint julep and the Virginia toddy, for which this place was famous the world over. The mint juleps were not the composite compounds of the present day. They were made of the purest French brandy, limestone water, old-fashioned cut loaf sugar, crushed ice, and young mint the foliage of which touched your ears…Here, in this old room, was uttered that famous remark of the Governor of North Carolina to the Governor of South Carolina. “It is a long time between drinks.”
This drink is also known as the “Old White” but it sounds like a beautiful Mint Julep that I
can imagine sipping on the front porch in a rocking chair, listening to the ceiling fans whine overhead.
Starting in 1938, Churchill Downs began promoting the Mint Julep as the official drink of the Kentucky Derby. About 120,000 are served in a single day every May. A select few of these are what is known as the extra-premium, custom made Mint Julep. They are $1,000.00 and you even get to keep the gold plated commemorative Julep Cup it comes in! They are made with Woodford Reserve Bourbon, mint imported from Ireland (I never knew that Ireland was the place for mint, but I don’t know if I could ever go back to having domestic mint after having the Irish version!), a silver straw, spring water ice cubes from the Bavarian Alps (because obviously water flown in and frozen from another country is better than anything we have here!), and sugar from Australia (again, I don’t know if I could ever go back to domestic sugar!). The proceeds from the sale of the premium Mint Julep go to charities dedicated to retired racehorses.
Drink wear is always important part of my discussions and we are lucky again this week…there is such a thing as the Julep Cup! It is a small, pewter or silver cup that froths up on the outside as you stir the ice to mix your drink. You can use them for a variety of different drinks, but it takes the guess work out of what to serve your Mint Julep out of! However, just like most any cocktail, you can drink this one out of a variety of bar-ware, just be sure the cup or glass can withstand muddling, because you will be mixing the sugar and mint together with a muddler. I really feel like that is an important step that is being left out at many bars now, due to time restraints on the bartenders. It helps to develop the flavors, in my opinion. Another fun fact to know is that there is a certain way to drink a Mint Julep out of a Julep Cup. You are only supposed to hold the cup by the top rim or the very bottom portion of the cup. You don’t want to disturb the frost on the outside of the cup, because it is keeping your drink incredibly cold, which adds to the enjoyment of a Julep. Your body heat makes the pewter or silver cups heat up and causes the ice to melt quickly. The world’s largest Mint Julep cup was unveiled at the 2008 Kentucky Derby. It was a six foot tall cup, including the mint sprig. It had an elaborate pumping system that was hidden in its giant stir straw.
Now for my favorite part…the drink making!
Mint Julep – Makes 1 drink (you can make pitchers of this drink, but I think it takes away from the integrity of this particular cocktail, so I like to make them individually.)
2 shots of good Kentucky Bourbon
4 mint leaves
1 teaspoon powdered sugar (white sugar works as well, but the powdered sugar dissolves more easily)
2 teaspoons of water
Mint sprigs for garnish
– Add mint, sugar, and water to the Julep Cup and muddle.
– Fill the glass with cracked or crushed is (this type of ice froths the cup batter than cubes)
– Add the bourbon and stir until cup is frothy
– Garnish with mint sprigs
I promise, if you’ve had a bad Mint Julep experience, there is a good chance this recipe might help to change your mind!