The Mint Julep is an iconic Southern cocktail mostly associated with the Kentucky Derby and bourbon. The drink seems to have originated in Maryland or Virginia, where it was made with either brandy, rum or rye.
However, the name of the drink is derived from the Arabic word “julab”, meaning rosewater. It was believed that the julep may have originated in Persia and traveled to Europe, most likely to Southern France, during the Crusades where the rose petals were substituted from indigenously grown mint. The drink is then believed to crossed with Atlantic with Western European colonists where the cognac was replaced with peach brandy and later by whisky.
The first known written reference to a cocktail-style julep appeared in 1787, a publication called The American Museum described the julep as a sugared rum drink that Virginians would quaff on rising in the morning. In 1803, John Davis, an English traveler, described a julep as “a dram of spiritous liquor that has mint in it.” This description closely resembles the cocktail many enjoy today.
Another Englishman, Captain Frederick Marryat (1792 –1848), was a former British Royal Navy officer, novelist, and an acquaintance of Charles Dickens. He is noted today as an early pioneer of the sea story, particularly for his semi-autobiographical novel Mr. Midshipman Easy (1836), for his children’s novel The Children of the New Forest (1847), and for a widely used system
of maritime flag signaling, known as Marryat’s Code. During his travels through out the United States in the 1830s, Captain Marryat took a liking to mint juleps and he perfected the art of making them. His recipe called for equal parts peach brandy and unflavored brandy. And by way of introduction from Captain Marryat, the United States version of the mint julep crossed over to Great Britain in 1837. While visiting friends in the United States, Captain Marryat wrote in his journals complaining of being awaken at 7 am in the morning by a house slave greeting him with a Julep.
Marryat popularized the drink through his description of the American Fourth of July celebrations and praise the drink in the following manner:
“I must descant a little upon the mint julep, as it is, with the thermometer at 100 o, one of the most delightful and insinuation potation that was ever invented, and may be drunk with equal satisfaction when the thermometer is as low as 70 °……as the ice melts you drink. I once overheard two ladies from the room next to me, and one of them said, “Well, if I have a weakness for any one thing, it is for a ‘mint julep!’— a very amiable weakness, and proving her good sense and taste. They are, in fact, like the American ladies, irresistible.”
The earliest written accounts of what appears to be a recipe was published in Captain Marryat’s 1840 book, Second Series of A Diary in America in which he describes the “real mint julep”:
There are many varieties [of Mint Julep], such as those composed of Claret, Madiera, & c.; but the ingredients of the real mint-julep are as follows. I learnt how to make them, and succeeded pretty well. Put into a tumbler about a dozen sprigs of the tender shoots of mint, upon them put a spoonful of white sugar, and equal proportions of peach and common brandy, so as to fill it up one-third, or perhaps a little less. Then take rasped or pounded ice, and fill up the tumbler. Epicures rub the lips of the tumbler with a piece of fresh pine-apple, and the tumbler itself is very often incrusted outside with stalactites of ice. As the ice melts, you drink.”
In Jerry Thomas’ 1862 book, “The Bartenders Guide: How to Mix Drinks”, the recipe calls for cognac, a dash of Jamaican rum and a garnish of berries and orange slices. He also list two julep variations of the cocktail: one made with gin and the other which calls for ripe pineapple and whisky.
Makes 1 Drink
A quarter slice of fresh pineapple
12 fresh mint leaves
2 ½ fl oz cognac
1 ounce peach brandy
¾ fl oz simple syrup (2 parts sugar 1 part water)
Rim the edge of a chilled julep cup or high ball glass with the pineapple and discard. Add the mint to a cocktail shaker and muddle the leaves to release the oil. Add the remaining ingredients and the crushed ice and shake vigorously for at least a minute. Fine strain into a julep cup or a high ball glass half filled with crushed ice. Stir the drink with the crushed ice using a bar spoon. Top the cup or glass with more crush ice and stir again. Repeat this process until the drink fill the cup and glass. Garnish with a sprig of mint and serve immediately.
In these modern times, the Mint Julep is best made with fresh spearmint leaves and pre-chilled shaker and glass. The traditional julep cup is made of silver or pewter to help it to retain its coldness. Very important when late spring and early temperature reach 80 degrees.
It is also important to note that one should discard the stem of the mint, as this will produce a bitter residue when muddled, and ensure that you are only bruising the mint leaves and not pummeling them to a bitter slush at the bottom of the cup or glass.
To serve as traditional Kentucky Mint Julep, chill the julep cup or the glass for several hours in the refrigerator. Remove the cup and add a heaping mound of crushed ice to the cup. In making the drink, substitute the cognac with Woodford Kentucky Bourbon. Remove the cup from the refrigerator and add a heaping mound of crushed ice to the cup. Pour the drink of the ice and garnish with a sprig of fresh mint, lightly dusted with confectionary sugar.