The Kentucky Derby may be over, but that’s no reason to stop enjoying the Mint Julep. A “Julep” (possibly from the Arabic julab or Persian gul-ab) was originally a medicinal term, first documented by Rhazes when he used the term to describe a concoction of violets macerated with water and sugar in 900 A.D.
By the fourteen-hundreds, the English had purloined the term and by 1583, the julep was defined as “a julep is just a “lesse boyled” syrup without “permixtion of anie other decoction with it”. As the years progressed, the julep would again be relegated to the medicinal world and from the 17th century to the mid 18th century juleps containing everything from egg yolks, “chymical oil of cinnamon”, camphor, musk, and “salt of wormwood” were prescribed.
Finally, in 1784, Englishman John Ferdinand Smith, wrote of his experiences while touring America and noted that the “poor and middling classes” were particularly fond of rum-based juleps. It would take until 1803 in London for the first printed reference of the mint julep to appear in a book by John Davis where he described the drink as “a dram of spirituous liquor that has mint steeped in it, taken by Virginians of a morning.” It is also mentioned around the same time in a very unfavorable light in a letter by a student at the College of William and Mary (apparently his classmates were far to fond of it!).
Predating the “Virginia” connection by at least two decades is a possibly apocryphal proto-Mint Julep story from South Carolina (far too many states lay claim to the origin of the Mint Julep), that involves Declaration of Independence signer John Rutledge and his 1775 encounter with an Irish Philadelphia bartender named “Frye” and how he swapped out the cognac in juleps in favor of Irish Whiskey and mixed it with mint leaves and crushed ice. Rutledge was so happy with the drink that Frye gave him the recipe to take back to South Carolina with him. True story? Hard to say, but it’s a good one.
What we do know is that the Mint Julep winded its way through the Old South and eventually worked its way northward until it was introduced to Washington, D.C. society by Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky, who brought his recipe to the Round Robin Bar at the Willard Hotel. The Mint Julep would not become the official drink of the Kentucky Derby until 1938.
According to tradition, the quintessential Mint Julep is traditionally made with four only ingredients: mint, bourbon, sugar, and water. Spearmint is usually the mint of choice used in Southern states. There is some controversy in the exact use of the mint however: bar tending great Gary Regan was originally opposed to muddling or crushing the mint in the drink and preferred to use it only as a garnish, but reversed his view by the time he wrote “The Joy of Mixology”, where he suggests infusing the mint into simple syrup before adding it to the drink. David Wondrich on the other hand, suggests discarding the original mint, which usually gets “shredded” in the process and replacing it before serving.
Henry Clay’s Kentucky-Style Mint Julep
(As interpreted by Round Robin bartender Jim Hewes) as printed in washingtonian.com
- 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 (Hewes uses red-stem mint)
- 2 cups crushed ice (dry, not slushy)
- 1 teaspoon granulated sugar plus a bit more to taste
Glass: 1 julep cup (crystal or silver), frosted in the freezer
Garnish: 1 thin strip lemon peel
Add one teaspoon of sugar, the mint leaves, one ounce bourbon, and one 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.