How the mint julep became the cocktail of high society
You don’t knock back a mint julep, nor do you gulp or take a swig.
A mint julep is far above all this. It is, in the world of cocktails, what the tiara is to headgear.
And while it’s a simple drink made with ice, bourbon, sugar and fresh mint, it has from early times possessed stature.
Of course, two of these ingredients — sugar and ice — were very expensive in the early days of this country, relegating who did the sipping and where they did it to a certain status.
As far back as 1803, a book by John Davis published in London mentions this New World drink, describing it as “a dram of spirituous liquor that has mint steeped in it, taken by Virginians of a morning.” That was during the time it was still sipped by the well-to-do for its medicinal qualities, or so they insisted.
Some 90 years later, it had risen far above being considered a drink for the health to something more divine. In a newspaper article in the 1890s, Kentuckian Joshua Soule Smith wrote, “He who has not tasted one has lived in vain … the nectar of the Gods is tame beside it. It is the very drink of drinks … It is seductive. No maiden’s kiss is tenderer or more refreshing. No maiden’s touch can be more passionate.”
Mr. Smith could also use a splash of cold water and a cigarette.
The mint julep is considered a true child of the Southern United States.
Virginia and Kentucky still vehemently argue over who can claim the birthright and others have suggested both are wrong. Presidential candidate Stephen Douglas once stood before a group of Virginians — in Virginia of all places — and insisted the julep was invented in his native Illinois. Cocktail historians give the nod to Virginia, however, noting that other liquors instead of bourbon were used. And for the record, Virginia did not go for Douglas.
What Kentucky can claim is the honor of having created the modern-day julep. While the early tipplers in Virginia and elsewhere were adding Cognac, brandy, aged gin, whiskey or even sparkling Moselle — the white wine from Germany and France — these liquors became both expensive and hard to get in the early 19th century, which opened the door to native-born bourbon as the key to julep libation, and bourbon is, of course, the very blood of Kentucky.
By 1850, the marriage of bourbon and juleps was sealed. That was the year Henry Clay, a Kentucky senator, introduced it to Washington, notably at the famed Willard Hotel, where anyone doing business in Washington gathered in its lobby. It is from the Willard that the term lobbyist was coined and where the whole country became familiar with the Southern mint julep.
Galveston preceded Washington on that one. As early as the 1840s, island hotels were selling bourbon-laced juleps, among others, for 25 cents.
May is, of course, the julep month. On May 6, all eyes will be on Kentucky for what has been called “the most exciting two minutes in sports” — the Kentucky Derby.
At Derby watch parties around the world, millions of mint juleps in one form or fashion will be consumed. It’s estimated more than 120,000 juleps will be served at the race itself. To picture that, envision 10,000 bottles of bourbon, 60,000 tons of ice and 1,000 pounds of fresh mint.
But it’s not the Kentucky Derby alone that makes juleps blossom in May. Throughout the South, including the yearly Galveston Historic Homes Tour (May 6-7 and 13-14), communities open the doors to their most famous homes for the touring curious. Where alcoholic libations are served, the julep usually holds court.
And finally, for those who hold stock in the endless calendar of designated days, May 30 is National Mint Julep Day.
So, just what is the perfect and proper mint julep?
Dawn Dustin, food and beverage manager at the Houston Yacht Club, 3620 Miramar Drive in Shoreacres, has made a lot of mint juleps for members there, and will be doing it again, silver cups and all, for a members’ Derby Watch Party on May 6.
The one thing Dustin has learned is, “When you make it wrong, they will let you know right away. They will not let me get away with anything when it comes to making a julep.”
What everyone agrees on are the four ingredients. But as every working bartender who has made a mint julep anywhere knows, that’s where the harmony ends.
Obviously, the name mint julep indicates the importance of mint to the drink. Without mint, the drink wouldn’t exist and that would be a crime.
Most juleps are made with spearmint, but it isn’t uncommon to find some locales using peppermint when it’s more plentiful.
At Tom’s Thumb Nursery and Landscaping, 2014 45th St. in Galveston, for example, Staci Villanueva had to pause and pull out a list when asked what kinds of mint were available.
“We’ve got spearmint, peppermint, pineapple mint, chocolate and also a mojito mint,” Villanueva said. “There may be some others.”
“It’s really good,” Villanueva said. “You can get a cocoa flavor in it. I like the mojito, too. It’s a little sweeter than the others.”
The mint makes the julep, Dustin said.
“For starters, you need to be very careful when you muddle the mint, because if you overdo it, it makes the mint bitter,” Dustin said. “Be gentle.”
She also slaps hers around.
“Right before I put it in, I give it a little whack or two. It brings out the flavor and aroma.”
The original Kentucky mint juleps were made with brown or refined sugar. This was mixed with a dash of mineral or tonic water just before muddling to help the sugar dissolve. Today, most bartenders opt for simple syrup.
Despite what a lot of people think, there is no julep-specified bourbon. Woodford Reserve, made at a Kentucky distillery that’s been around since 1838, is the official bourbon of the Kentucky Derby. But that has more to do with a contract arrangement than an endorsement from the world’s julep-judging bodies.
The rule of thumb? Make it with a bourbon you like to sip.
The final ingredient is ice. This would seem simple enough, but serving a julep lover a drink with improper ice is like slapping their cheek with a leather glove. It’s called an insult.
Juleps call for shaved or crushed ice, and done to perfection. It should not quite be a snow cone, but the Titanic should be able to sail through without damaging its hull. The ice should be packed well and never allowed to melt until the drink is served.
Construction is easy.
The mint is lightly muddled with the simple syrup in a chilled cup. This is topped with ice to halfway fill the cup, after which the bourbon is added. Stir thoroughly until the outside of the cup begins to frost, and then fill the cup with more ice. Add a mint sprig and straw.
Ah, but the parts alone do not a julep make. Presentation is everything.
The silver julep cup is a wonder to behold, its frosted sides challenging the heat of the day, its icy head sprouting a chapeau of mint and its crown a dignified straw — often silver, as well. It’s delivered to its lucky recipient in splendor, the deliverer careful to hold it lightly at the bottom so as not to mar the frost.
Dustin even adds a final extra touch.
“I push in a full mint sprig as garnish, but then I put the straw through it,” she said. “That way, as you lean in to take a sip, your nose is in the mint. You get this minty aroma at the same time you taste the drink.”
The Willard InterContinental Hotel’s Signature Mint Julep
This variation of the recipe is served in the hotel’s Round Robin Bar and was printed in the National Geographic Ultimate City Guide for Washington, D.C.
2 ounces Maker’s Mark bourbon (or another premium Kentucky bourbon)
2 ounces San Pellegrino sparkling water
8-10 fresh mint leaves, plus a sprig of mint for garnish
2 cups crushed ice (dry, not slushy)
1 teaspoon granulated sugar plus a bit more to taste
1 thin strip lemon peel
1 julep cup, frosted in the freezer
Add 1 teaspoon of sugar, the mint leaves, 1 ounce bourbon, and 1 ounce sparkling water to the julep cup.
Using the heel of a butter knife, muddle for about a minute until it forms a tea. Add a half cup of crushed ice and muddle some more. Add the rest of the ice, keeping it tightly packed.
Pour in the rest of the bourbon and sparkling water. Garnish with a sprig of mint and top with the lemon peel and a dusting of sugar. Wedge the straw just behind the mint sprig so when you lean in for a sip, you get a peppery whiff.