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Over its 200-plus year history, the Mint Julep has remained a drink that defies attempts at unfortunate alteration. Sure, there have been futile attempts to complicate its harmonious simplicity (or, in some oddball cases, streamline it), but not a single one has managed to successfully classify the Julep’s rep as an endangered species in need of rescuing.
To the contrary, the annual Kentucky Derby is practically the drink’s own national holiday, as it has been the official drink of the race since 1938. The clamor for the classic cocktail comes to a thunderous springtime crescendo at Churchill Downs, where 120,000 Mint Juleps are served over a mere two days. Add to that the limited edition $1,000 Julep—about 100 special for-charity booze-filled, one-of-a-kind cups, each adorned with a rose petal from the winning steed’s garland of roses—and that’s a whole lot of in-demand minty bourbon-y goodness.
“The cool thing about a classic like the Mint Julep is it’s really simple to make,” says bartender Charles Joly, the owner of Crafthouse Cocktails and the man responsible for all of those race-day refreshments for the last four years, since the official Derby bourbon, Woodford Reserve, partnered with Joly and crowned him the official Mint Julep maker for the storied event. “But with simple cocktails, there’s nothing to hide behind. There’s more that can go wrong.”
Without the safety net of multiple mixers, the components of a good Mint Julep absolutely cannot be subpar. “The beauty of a three-ingredient cocktail like the Mint Julep is there’s nowhere to hide bad choices, with only bourbon, sugar and mint,” says Derek Brown, the owner of D.C.’s Columbia Room and author of the upcoming “Spirits Sugar Water Bitters.”
Although, if you break it down, technically it’s four ingredients. Ice is important in all cocktails, but in the Mint Julep, it’s the belt on your pants—both aesthetic accoutrement and necessary practicality.
“As the ice melts and dilutes, the drink gets cooler and the flavors change,” says Brown. “That’s why crushed ice is used. It contributes to it, changing over time.” And while hot weather might be the inspiration to make a Mint Julep, it’s a drink that was not designed to be kicked back for a quick quench. “The thing about the Mint Julep is that it’s much like a glass of really great wine,” he says. “You have to let it change over time. It starts one way and ends up another. It’s a porch-sipping drink.”
But as important as that frosty crown of crushed ice is to the slow-dilution of whiskey, the drink didn’t always have the benefit of frozen water, according to Sara Camp Milam, the managing editor of Southern Foodways Alliance and co-author with Jerry Slater of “The Southern Foodways Alliance Guide to Cocktails.”
“In the 1830s, commercial ice wasn’t widely available in the South,” says Milam. “It’s hard to imagine the cocktail without a mountain of crushed ice, but the Mint Julep we’re envisioning occurred sometime after the 1830s, or closer to middle of the century, because it wasn’t until then that ice houses were common in Southern cities.”
Another bit of lore that often arises when discussing the Mint Julep is the origins of the cocktail category’s name. It’s likely derived from the Arabic word golab, for rose water, which, according to Milam, was used to make medicine more palatable—a story common to other alcoholic elixirs.
Milam and Slater found that the Mint Julep’s foundational precursor was not, in fact, made in Kentucky or with American whiskey. “We do believe that early-19th-century Virginia is the home of the Mint Julep,” she says. “We found that the closest thing was a drink with peach brandy or rum, consumed in the morning with mint to make it go down easier on farms in Virginia.
The first written mention of the Mint Julep was found in an 1803 letter written by a Virginia plantation owner. The next was a menu in 1816 at the White Sulfur Springs resort (currently known as the famed Greenbrier) in what is now West Virginia. The ice-free offerings were 25 cents a pop and three for $.50.
Of course, bourbon is now synonymous with the cocktail, and it’s hard to imagine it any other way. “There are two camps with the Mint Julep. Those who think it’s a Mojito and those who know it’s an Old Fashioned,” says Brown. “The Mojito camp is wrong. The Julep is not an insipid sweet drink; it’s something complex that has a little bit of a wallop to it.”
In her book, “Julep: Southern Cocktails Refashioned,” bartender Alba Huerta, the owner of popular Houston bar Julep, argues for a higher-proof bourbon as well: “The ideal spirit for this is a mid-80s- to 90-proof bourbon. A straight 80-proof might drink well for the first few minutes, but as the ice begins to melt, it will quickly become too diluted to be enjoyable.”
As for the mint, bruise, don’t bully. “A little tap will get the fragrance out,” says Brown. “One experiment I do when I teach classes is to tell a person to chew a mint leaf. The first bite is refreshing and fragrant, but as you continue to chew, it gets more bitter and awful tasting. The more you muddle, the worse that gets,” says Brown. “It’s like with hamburgers—people push down on them and let all the juice out of it. Why kill the hamburger? It just wants to be loved. Same for the mint.”
“You want nice firm sprigs, not droopy mint over side of your drink. That’s sad,” says Joly, who prefers large nosegay-like tufts of the herb in his Juleps. To keep his garnishing mint gorgeous, Joly spends a couple of hours bunching up bouquets and setting them, leaf side emerged, in ice water for about 15 minutes. Then he cuts the stems (with a knife—scissors, he says, crush the capillaries, making it harder for water to do its job) and plunges them into room-temperature water. If keeping overnight, he puts a loose plastic bag over the top of the bunches. “That technique will bring back mint even if it’s a little bit on its way out.”
Mint leaves for muddling he keeps gently wrapped in a damp paper towel. Those get pressed gently in the bottom of the glass or cup with a little sugar and whiskey. “When you muddle the mint with nothing else, you’re muddling into the air. When you muddle in liquid, the oils are going into something.”
You can’t talk about the Mint Julep without talking about its signature sterling cup, which happens to be another part of the lore and allure of the cocktail—that it’s a drink of the well-to-do, contained in a fine, frosty silver cup. But while the antebellum “Gone with the Wind” imagery (the film came out the same year the Derby claimed the Julep as its own), it’s not possible to ignore that it draws a line directly to our country’s slave-owning past—something Milam would like to see change.
“It’s a great vehicle for a drink that’s full of crushed ice, but I think unfortunately it tends to be tied in with this idealized plantation imagery of the South, where you have a butler bringing you a Mint Julep on a silver tray. I don’t like that part of it,” she says. “ It speaks of an old South that also means white man planters and servitude. I hope that we can reclaim the Julep for everyone.”
But function is working its way to overtaking the tarnish. “The metal cup is becoming iconic,” says Joly. “When people see it, they’re already thinking Julep. And it certainly allows it to frost up the way only a metal cup will do. Sure, it works in a Collins glass, but it’s not quite as cold.
Good whiskey, fresh mint, a little sugar or simple syrup and crushed ice—that’s it. But within each of these things lies the opportunity to make a choice that elevates the drink to the level of the icon that it is.
“I think that it’s a cocktail that fulfills a couple of points at the same time,” says Brown. “It’s a very aromatic cocktail—a very beautiful cocktail—so on that side, it has this almost ethereal characteristic. On the other side, it’s boozy as fuck. So you have this beauty and this brawn at same time. And when done well, that makes for the best cocktail.”
To find out how to make a Mint Julep, watch this video.
For riffs on the Mint Julep, check out these recipes:
Mint Julep Jello-O Shot