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5 Facts You Didn't Know About the Mint Julep

Derby Day (May 7), a celebration of the annual Kentucky Derby horse race, is coming. Although the race itself doesn’t last long—some call it the greatest two minutes in sports—the parties that lead up to the sprint can last all day if not all week, fueled by plenty of Mint Juleps. Keep the conversation (and drinks) flowing with this guide to Julep trivia, sourced from newly released book Southern Spirits: Four Hundred Years of Drinking In the American South, with Recipes by Robert F. Moss.

1. No one drinks Mint Juleps in the South these days.

The exception: around the Kentucky Derby, of course. Over the course of two days at Churchill Downs, Moss estimates, more than 120,000 Mint Juleps are served, “which I suspect exceeds the total number of Juleps served anywhere else in the South during the entire rest of the year.”

2. The earliest Juleps didn’t include bourbon or mint—just rum, water and sugar.

Around 1800, mint slipped into the equation. Many antebellum Juleps (see recipe below) were made with cognac or other French brandies. According to some accounts, Juleps made farther north in New York City, circa 1830s, were often made with peach brandy as the liquor of choice. Thanks to the phylloxera epidemic of the mid-1800s, which infected France’s grapevines and hobbled cognac production, and a federal excise tax on American-made brandies, whiskey likely became the staple after the Civil War.

3. Juleps and similar libations were called antifogmatics and were often consumed in the morning.

American author Samuel Goodrich explained that “in the Southern states, where the ague is so common and troublesome a malady, where fogs are frequent and dews heavy, it has grown the custom to fortify the body from attacks of the disease, by means of Juleps, or what are called antifogmatics.” That’s our kind of eye-opener.

4. When crushed ice was added, the drink became known as the Hailstorm Julep.

That was sometime around 1830, when ice still was hard to procure, often transported from Boston or other Northern climes and protected in icehouses. The drink was made like an ordinary Julep, one visitor to West Virginia reported, except the glass was “well filled with a quantity of ice chopped in small pieces, which is then put in shape of a fillet around the outside of the tumbler.”

5. Mint Juleps weren’t served on the verandas of big plantation houses out in the country.

Scratch your Scarlett O’Hara fantasies. “The Mint Julep was a city concoction, one of the fancy drinks associated with the great hotel bars of Southern cities,” such as the Ballard House hotel in Richmond and the Saint Charles Hotel in New Orleans, Moss asserts. “The Mint Julep is closely associated with Kentucky today, but before the Civil War, it was a city slicker’s drink, not something you found in the rolling horse country of the Bluegrass State.”

Antebellum Mint Julep

From Southern Spirits by Robert F. Moss (Ten Speed Press, 2016); adapted from How To Mix Drinks or the Bon Vivant’s Companion by Jerry Thomas (Hesperus Press, 1862)

Serves 1

  • 1 tbsp pulverized sugar
  • 2 1/2 tbsp water
  • 6 to 8 sprigs fresh mint
  • 3 oz cognac
  • Crushed ice
  • Assorted berries (such as strawberries, raspberries, blackberries)
  • 1 orange slice, for garnish

In a large tumbler or silver Julep cup, combine the sugar and water and mix well with a spoon. Add 3 or 4 sprigs of mint and press them firmly with a spoon or muddler until the flavor is extracted. Remove the mint, then pour the cognac into the tumbler and fill it to the top with crushed ice. Take 3 or 4 sprigs of fresh mint and arrange them atop the glass like a bouquet of flowers, stems downward in the glass. Arrange the berries and orange slice among the mint leaves in an attractive fashion. Insert a long straw (preferably stainless steel or silver) into the ice. Sip, with your nose nestled among the mint, and savor the cool nectar within.