Ah, the mint julep: bourbon, powdered sugar, mint. Smashed ice in a silver cup. Stirred until the sides frost up.

originally published in SALT, July 2015

Ah, the mint julep: bourbon, powdered sugar, mint. Smashed ice in a silver cup. Stirred until the sides frost up. 

During my first decade behind the bar, I made mint juleps rarely, and in most cases only on Derby Day. In my mind I associated them with sorority girls and pre-batched mint syrup. Only gradually did I learn what a deep history the drink comes trailing. 

The word julep evolved from the Persian gulab, meaning rosewater. It’s a very ancient word. Supposedly the second part of it, the ap, goes back more than five thousand years to Proto-Indo European. Ap meant water. Jul, or something like it, meant rose. So, rosewater. Or for practical purposes, sweetwater. 

In the late middle ages, Europe started to import sugar from Arabic-speaking, cane-growing countries. Along with the sugar came words associated with it, including the word sugar itself. Also, “candy.” Also, “syrup.” And of course, julep. According to linguists, it first shows up around the year 1400. An apothecary’s book advises that the doctor “give him in the beginning Julep — that is a syrup made only of water and sugar.” 

Many traditional cocktails are traceable to apothecaries. “Juleps” were used as a vehicle for bitter medicines. The mint julep is first mentioned in a doctor’s notes from 1783. On February 20 of that year, in London, Dr. Maxwell Garthshore visited a Mrs. P——, on Orange Street. He found her “emaciated” and sick at her stomach, with “frequent retching.” He “prescribed her an emetic, some opening powders, and a mint julep.” She “seemed better for a few days.” (She died in the summer, but the good doctor made her last several months much less miserable, prescribing one trusts many more juleps.) 

The first actual recipe for a mint julep comes from a hospital — St. John’s, in London. A book published around 1785 says that the doctors there found mint juleps useful for “removing nausea” and advised making them like so: Take of simple mint water 8 ounces, spirituous mint water 1 ounce, loaf sugar a drachm; mix them into a julep. Four large spoonfuls taken frequently are of great service... 

In America the mint julep came to be associated less with medicine and more with leisure. Less, that is, with the “simple,” and more with the “spirituous.” The shift seems to have been especially strong in the South. In 1805, in Virginia, we read of a “Turk” from Tunisia (interesting coincidence, given the julep’s Arabic roots), who has a trick played on him by some American soldiers. A correspondent in Washington, D. C., writes, “You know Turks drink no spirits. While at Hampton, they made him drink a ‘mint julep,’ a morning dram in Virginia, pretending that it was water from a neighbouring mountain.” 

In Kentucky, to this day, they grow excellent mint — long-stalked, red-stemmed mint. And in the eighteenth century, people in the central part of that state were starting to distill a new kind of dark corn whiskey. As for how they came to call it bourbon, that’s another story. The Oxford English Dictionary has it slightly wrong. There you can read that bourbon is “Whisky of a kind originally made in Bourbon County, Kentucky,” but in reality, when they started making bourbon, there was no “Kentucky.” That territory was called, instead, Bourbon. It was an outpost of French settlement and a fringe of Louisiana. There’s still a lot of French influence in that part of Kentucky. They never mention it when you visit the distilleries, but it’s there. The reason Thomas Merton could live at a monastery near Bardstown, the reason there were Trappist monks in that part of the world to begin with, was because of the French. Whoever invented it, one thing is known: when they shipped it down the river to New Orleans, they marked the barrels “Old Bourbon.” That was its name before they called it Bourbon, Old Bourbon — as in, it’s Kentucky now, but it used to be called Bourbon. The OED says the name appears first in the 1840s, but in fact as early as 1827 (in the Maysville, Kentucky Eagle) a man named H. I. de Bruin could advertise “a small, but tolerably good, assortment of dry goods and groceries,” among which were, “a quantity of OLD BOURBON WHISKY, by the barrel — and a few barrels of 9 YEARS OLD BOURBON WHISKY, of superior quality, which he will sell by the gallon only.” Almost two hundred years ago, and there was not only already “Bourbon” in Kentucky, but Bourbon snobbery. 

The mint julep has inspired perhaps more literature, or at least more writing, than any other cocktail. If you ask legendary barman Chris McMillan to make you one at Bar UnCommon in New Orleans, you can hear him recite a nineteenth century poem about the drink. 

The poem, published by Col. Joshua Soule Smith in the Lexington, Kentucky Herald, praises the drink as “the zenith of man’s pleasure.” Smith had clearly sipped a few already when he wrote that the julep “is fragrant, cold, and sweet — it is seductive. No maiden’s kiss is tenderer or more refreshing, no maidens touch could be more passionate. Sip it and dream." 

In the long tradition of writing on mint juleps, the standout is undoubtedly Charles H. Baker, Jr.’s 1939 Gentleman’s Companion, specifically Vol. 2, “Being an Exotic Drinking Book, or, Around the World with Jigger, Beaker, and Flask.” Baker was rediscovered nearly a decade ago in the Oxford American magazine, by the modern-day writer/bartender St. John Frizell. 

A Southerner by birth, Baker had spent the roaring twenties in New York, but he left just as the Depression hit to work as (of all things) a publicist on a cruise liner. As panicking Americans made runs on banks, Baker sipped juleps (and many other tipples) in calmer waters abroad. Acting as the ship’s publicist meant charming the guests. One of these, the heiress to a mining fortune, became Baker’s wife. As they traveled, he sent off stories to Esquire, Town & Country, and Gourmet. He refers to the mint julep as a “peerless American conception.” Having sipped them in places ranging from “the shaded upper gallery in Versailles, Kentucky all the way to the coffee and cocao plantations of central Guatemala,” he was an expert on the cocktail’s many varieties. To our benefit, he took fastidious notes, including advice on which glass to use. 

Since the mint julep is traditionally served in late spring/early summer, it’s typically served as cold as possible, hence the silver or metal cup (still called, in the South, a julep cup). The two substances, metal and glass, conduct differently. Glass insulates the hand, helping to keep fingers warm from chilled contents. Metal acts as a conductor, sucking the chill outward. That’s why the cup frosts on the outside. (Keep this lesson on the physics of heat transfer in mind when ordering a mint julep: if you don’t want cold hands, ask for yours in a glass, even if they have julep cups). 

Baker, in the 1930s (and Chris McMillan today) would warn you against the rough handling of the mint. Bartenders should rub it around delicately in their hands. This helps one get a feel for how the aromatic essence of the oils are released. Crushing the plant too violently releases its bitter chlorophyll, which can sour the taste. When making mint juleps, it’s essential to press the mint gently. 

Of the many mint juleps that Baker recorded on his travels, the one he drank in Louisville, Kentucky, at the historic Pendennis Club, is probably closest to the one we think of today, i.e., the International Bartenders Association version. For Baker, it was one among many. In Georgia, the drink often came with a hearty dose of peach brandy. In Santiago, Cuba, he encountered bartenders who added rum, fresh lime, and grenadine. But Baker’s favorite of all these wasn’t even from America — he found it in the Philippines. He writes that it was mixed for him by a Chinese boy at the Manila Hotel on Luzon in 1926. It consisted of top-shelf bourbon, fresh red-stemmed mint, a little sugar, a teaspoon of demerara rum, and two ripe spears of pineapple, to be eaten as a snack at the end.  

Here are two recipes. The first is the classic version, the one Baker had in Louisville, and the second is his favorite, from Luzon. Notice that, heretically, the latter is served in a pint glass. 

1) Combine the following in a metal cup: 

a teaspoon of powdered sugar, two teaspoons of water, and four mint leaves. 

Gently press the ingredients against the sides of the glass with a muddler, careful not to bruise the mint. Overfill the cup with finely cracked ice. Add a jigger (1.5 oz.) or more of good bourbon. Stir for about fifteen seconds until the glass frosts over on the outside. Garnish with a sprig of fresh mint, leaves splayed out.

2) Combine the following in a pint glass: 

a teaspoon of powdered sugar, two teaspoons of water, and four mint leaves. 

Gently press the ingredients together with a muddler, careful not to bruise the mint. Fill with finely cracked ice. Add a jigger (1.5 oz.) of good bourbon and a teaspoon of demerara rum (I like Zaya). Stir for about fifteen seconds. Garnish with a sprig of fresh mint, leaves splayed out, and two ripe spears of pineapple.

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