A sense of good breeding always surrounds cocktails. Maybe it’s the cost, the underlying chemistry, or the dramatic flourish added to their presentation. Whatever the reason, it’s tough to avoid feeling classy when sipping on a strong drink, confidently ordered. Though any number of craft cocktails share this halo of high class, the Mint Julep is the Kentucky colonel of them all.
A mixture of bourbon, sugar, mint, and above all, lots of crushed ice, this southern delicacy is as classically American as the horse race it’s so often associated with. The drink naturally emigrated from the grand, pillared porches of the Southern upper crust to the annual Kentucky Derby in 1938, when the Mint Julep was named the pony show's official drink. These days, roughly 120,000 mint juleps are served in commemorative silver cups every year at Churchill Downs.
And while there’s no other drink you should be sipping come Derby Day, there’s no reason to relegate such a perfectly balanced cocktail to a single day on the calendar.
The earliest published reference to the mint julep actually predates its official association with the Kentucky Derby by over a century. After spending four years traveling through the early United States, Englishman John Davis wrote about the American wilds he encountered, including none other than our original Southern belle, the Mint Julep. His 1803 publication calls it, "A dram of spirituous liquor that has mint steeped in it, taken by Virginians of a morning." Damn.
Now, don’t think just because Southern gents used to enjoy their Juleps (well) before 5 p.m. that they were getting hammered as part of their morning routine. The term "julep" actually comes from the Persian word "gulab," an ancient rosewater medicinal drink. Presumably, the word transformed into any sweet tincture used to cure ailments – and early Mint Julep recipes did just that.
So, how did the drink we know and love today (which, let’s be honest, may cause a few more day-after stomach ailments than it cures) develop from a yesteryear digestive? As so many classic drinks do, the Mint Julep's story has become more legend than verified fact. They say a man wandered the mighty Mississippi looking for a splash of clean, crisp water to round out his glass of bourbon (yeah, sure), and lo, he found a clump of mint growing on the bank. He added some leaves to his glass and boom: the Ming Julep was born.
Regardless of its actual origin, Southern high society in the country’s early days took a shine to the Julep. Back then, though, they were often made with rum or cognac – not bourbon. Some say the poorer farmers in the area first introduced whiskey to the cocktail, and it tasted so damn good that the recipe stuck. Whatever the source, the drink has since been tied to the unique strain of gentility that only exists in the American South.
The All-Important Silver Cup
A Mint Julep served in anything other than a silver cup isn't a Mint Julep at all. When you drink from a proper one, you're supposed to hold the very top or the very bottom of the cup – that allows the condensation to freeze, forming a beautiful and delicate ice crust on the outside of the silver.
The metal doesn't have any molecular significance for retaining temperature, so near as we can tell, the Kentucky gentry just liked showing off. As you might imagine, ice was a precious rare commodity two hundred years ago in the sweltering South. If you were one of the lucky few who could afford it, you had every reason to flaunt it, which is likely why the silver cup tradition took hold. They've been a status symbol in the South since the early 1800s – about the same time the Mint Julep appeared.
Some use a beaded pattern on the rim while others are banded, but for the most part, Julep cups all look pretty similar to how they were originally envisioned back in the day. The now-ubiquitous design is attributed to three 19th century silversmiths: Asa Blanchard of Lexington, Kentucky and brothers William and Archibald Cooper of Louisville.
Muddling the Mint
According to Amy Stewart, author of The Drunken Botanist, the only mint you should consider adding to your julep is spearmint. The crisp, sweet notes melt into the bourbon, sugar, and ice, she says.
Once you've got that, don't grind the hell out of the leaves when you're muddling. You want to gently use your muddler to swirl and knock the leaves around, not pulverize them, to release their essential oils. But don't take it from us, take it from Joshua Soule Smith, an actual Kentucky colonel. The guy actually wrote an ode to the Mint Julep in the late 1800s (yes, seriously). According to him, "Like a woman’s heart, it gives its sweetest aroma when bruised."
We'd say that's a pretty terrible attitude towards women, but a pretty great attitude towards muddling.
No matter what side of the Mason-Dixon Line you hail from, you can’t miss with this fairly straightforward mix. Button your collar, dab the sweat from your brow, and enjoy this perfect balance of refinement and simplicity, an apt metaphor for the South itself.
- 2 oz Woodford Reserve bourbon
- ½ oz simple syrup
- Small handful of fresh spearmint leaves
- Crushed ice
- Add the syrup and spearmint into a silver-plated Mint Julep cup. Muddle gently until you can smell mint aroma being released from the leaves.
- Add the bourbon, then partially fill with crushed ice and stir.
- Top with more crushed ice until the cup is almost overflowing. Garnish with remaining spearmint leaves.