As bizarre as this story sounds today, the mint julep of yesterday was a serious matter indeed. An essential part of the South’s legendary hospitality, it was as identifiably southern as the first twelve notes of “Dixie.” Renowned chef James Beard called it “the most elegant drink in the world.” Perhaps because of its revered status, the drink has courted controversy through the centuries. As the story above illustrates, the blending of four simple ingredients—bourbon, water, sugar, and mint—roused strong emotions. Mint julep refinements were seemingly infinite. Sprinkle the sugar, or pour it as syrup? Shave the ice, or pummel it with a hammer? Crush the mint, bruise it, or simply allow it to fl oat whole in the mixture?
Like many American traditions, the mint julep borrowed from Old World models, added unique New World refinements, and resulted in a product that bore little resemblance to its forebears. In the 1600s, Samuel Pepys noted that he went “thence to my Lord’s … who gave me a case of good julep,”and Milton wrote of “this cordial julep.” “Julep” is a French word that can be traced to the Arabic “julab” and the Persian “gulab,” both meaning “rosewater.” The word originally signified any sweet drink, often a liquid mixed with medicine or used as a chaser after consuming unpleasant medicinal herbs.
Exactly when and where the first mint julep was mixed in America is unknown, although it is certain that the drink assumed an alcoholic character at an early date. The first may have been made from rum, long a staple in American colonies. But the drink that eventually charmed the South was unquestionably prepared with bourbon whiskey. This mellow, caramel-colored liquor is thought to have originated in Bourbon County, Kentucky, named after the French royal family. In 1789 a Baptist minister named Elijah Craig began distilling whiskey from corn mixed with a little rye, barley, and spring water. The harvest exceeded the needs of the farm that year, and converting the excess corn into whiskey made good economic sense, since the whiskey did not spoil and was easily transported.
Silver is the proper julep vessel, though the Kentucky Derby offers gold with a silver straw.
In time, southern plantation owners, as enthusiastic hosts as they were guests, developed faster, but no less exacting, formulas. A recipe supposedly by Henry Clay’s body servant was recently rescued during the restoration of an old house frequented by Clay. Incidentally, it was Senator Clay who introduced, to much acclaim, the mint julep to Washington society during his time in the capital. According to the notes, mint leaves, fresh and tender, were bruised lightly against the sides of a cup using the back of a spoon, the leaves removed, and the cup half-filled with cracked ice. Bourbon from oaken barrels was poured gently into the cup and allowed to slide slowly through the ice. In another container, granulated sugar was dissolved in chilled limestone water then poured over the ice. As beads of moisture gathered on the cup, the frosted brim was garnished with choice sprigs of mint, and the whole served with a courtly bow.
Today’s purists insist that the only proper container for the drink remains the silver vessel of yesteryear. First introduced in 1816, the cups were beakers with cylindrical bodies and slightly molded lips and bases. In addition to their durability and handsome good looks, the silver cups hold frost—an indispensable characteristic of the classic julep—better than glass, or, alas, plastic. Many southern families still display julep cups on their sideboards as highly prized and valuable antiques.
Southern author Irvin S. Cobb once said of the mint julep, “Who has not tasted one has lived in vain.” The controversy continues over the many recipes offered by bartenders, tavern keepers, maitre d’s, and self-anointed connoisseurs of the mixological arts in the South and elsewhere. Variations are endless, even if one excludes such unspeakable modern-day variations as those that call for crème de menthe in place of mint leaves, or gin or vodka instead of bourbon. For sheer eloquence, consider the cherished recipe left for posterity by the late Lt. Gen. Simon Bolivar Bruckner Jr., who fought at Okinawa and was the son of a Confederate general:
Go to a stream where cool, crystal-clear water bubbles from under a bank of dew-washed ferns. In a consecrated vessel, dip up a little water at the source. Follow the stream thru its banks of green moss and wild flowers until it broadens and trickles thru beds of mint growing in aromatic profusion and waving softly in the summer breeze. Gather the sweetest and tenderest shoots and gently carry them home. Go to the sideboard and select a decanter of … Bourbon distilled by a master hand, mellowed with age, yet still vigorous and inspiring. An ancestral sugar bowl, a row of silver goblets, some spoons and some ice.
Unlike many old customs that have slipped into obscurity, the mint julep is still in the forefront of literature and movies, television, and song. Of course the mint julep was Gerald O’Hara’s favorite drink in Gone with the Wind. In The Great Gatsby, Tom, Daisy, and friends enjoy juleps at the Plaza Hotel. More recently, the mint julep was featured in an episode of Star Trek when Dr. McCoy prepared one during the episode “This Side of Paradise,” which aired on March 2, 1967. The drink is mentioned in the film Thank You for Smoking (2005) when the captain explains the secret for making the perfect mint julep, and later at his funeral, one is placed on his casket. Praises for the drink have been sung by such diverse musicians as Ray Charles, Louis Armstrong, Bobby Goldsboro, and the Beastie Boys.
It appears the mint julep is here to stay. No drink in history has been so debated, praised, and fought over. The duel mentioned at the beginning of this article is just one example, however extreme. Unfortunately, the names and outcome of that encounter have been lost to us, but perhaps it does not matter. The point is that the mint julep was a gentleman’s drink—invented, enjoyed, and defended by gentlemen. General Buckner referred to the mint julep as “a ceremony to be performed by a gentleman possessing a true sense of the artistic … and a proper appreciation of the occasion.” With that in mind, when you next order a mint julep, raise your silver cup to those impassioned gentlemen of yesteryear, in silent tribute and everlasting gratitude.
This feature was previously published in Issue 91, Winter 2009.
For a mint julep recipe, visit the recipe portion of our website.
About the Author
Lisa Cahill is a freelance writer who was born in the South and now lives in New Mexico. She maintains strong ties with family and friends in Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and Texas.