As well-known to the Kentucky Derby as strawberries and cream to Wimbledon, the Mint Julep is a drink of simple complexity with roots (not the one’s made of mint) dating back hundreds of years.
Despite rising to popularity in the early days of American settlement, the earliest discovered mention of the drink formally known as a “Julep”, is in a 17th-century masque (court pageant) known as Comus, written in 1634 by John Milton. Amongst a theatrical plot involving magic, necromancy, gods and betrayal, is the quote, “And first, behold the cordial Julep-here, That flames and dances in its crystal bounds, With spirits of balm and fragrant syrups mix’d….to life so friendly or so cool to thirst”.
First mention of the drinks arrival into America is well documented throughout the online community stating, “A visitor in 1774, describing the southern menu and especially breakfast as being overly luxurious, observed that the average planter rose early and had his drink (because a julep before breakfast was believed to give protection against malaria)”. While there no clear mention as to the quotes original source, the promotion of it’s medicinal properties is well documented with julep recorded as an old Provençal French word used to describe a medicinal liquid or elixir – a term used in medical journals as late as 1615. From this French use did the drink find it’s way into early America with French colonists (aka “Planters”) arriving into Wisconsin around 1634. Settling in a large swampy area north of the Ohio river, it is believed that they may have brought with them the Julep remedy in prevention of Malaria during the hot summer months.
The etymology of the word Julep can be further traced back to ancient Persia, written گلاب (golâb – aka julab or gulab) meaning “rose water”. As the drink migrated with trade throughout the Mediterranean, it is presumed the more aromatic and medicinal mint eventually replaced the rose petals. This botanical choice also seems fitting since mint was considered a symbol of hospitality in Greek mythology.
Despite such an extensive history, first mention in resemblance to the Juleps we know today would not be published until 1803 in a book by English sailor John Davies. Entitled Travel of Four Years and a Half in the United States, Davies wrote of a young chap who, “…the first thing he did on getting out of bed was call on a Julep; and I honestly date my own love of whiskey, from mixing and tasting my young master’s Juleps”. Against this mention a footnote is supplied defining the drink as;
“A dram of spirituous liquor that has mint steeped in it, taken by Virginians of a morning”.
Today our Julep’s “spirituous dram of choice” is commonly a Tennessee whiskey or Kentucky bourbon, however prior to the mid 19th century Juleps were more commonly mixed using imported brandy. The change to American whiskey was a snowball effect greatly influenced by two key historical events, one; the poor economic aftermath of the American Civil War making it easier and cheaper for Americans to create a spirit from local crops than importing a foreign brandy and two; an outbreak of the vine louse Phylloxera in 1870, bringing the European wine and brandy industry to its knees. Popular also at the time was the Georgian Julep, an adaptation on the original using a dry peach brandy. The first ever cocktail book entitled How to Mix Drinks or the Bon Vivants Companion by Jerry Thomas in 1862, listed not just a Mint Julep but also whiskey and pineapple versions as well as a special mention to “The Real Georgia Mint Julep” in which the author included a well written homage from a local Georgian paper.
As popularity grew so did the caliber of the serves. By the beginning of the 1800’s it was not uncommon to visit upon a house or tavern who above all else, held a reputation for their Mint Juleps. The Old White Tavern in Sulphur Springs, West Virginia was one such place with records dating back to 1816 revealing the number of guests who would order Juleps at a cost of 25 cents each or three for 50 cents (about USD$7 today). Special Julep pewter and silver mugs could also be purchased for the wealthy while southern state cabinet-makers were not strangers to creating bespoke Mint Julep tables to aid the mixing.
Clearly, Juleps have been as much a part of the new country as the planters who brought them. Illinois is still lovingly known as the Sucker State reputedly after colonial leader George Rogers Clark who lead troops down the Ohio River against the British during the American Revolution. Upon encountering the French colonists drinking Juleps through rye stalk straws, Clark exclaimed, “Surrender you Suckers you” to which the name has stuck. Today the Mint Julep is best known as the official drink of the Churchill Downs racetrack in Louisville, Kentucky where they have been mixing Juleps for their members since 1875. Today during the racetracks most popular meets – (Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks) almost 120,000 Mint Juleps are served over two days of racing.
As Virginian humorist George William Bagby observed during his travels around the state in the 1860s;
“All the scenery in the world — avail[s] not to keep a Virginian away from a julep on a hot summer day”
– as true today as it was then.
[CLICK HERE for the original 1862 recipe]
- Travels of Four Years and a Half in the United States of America – John Davis, 1803.
- Kentucky Derby – Official website
- Comus, a mask: presented at Ludlow Castle 1634, before the Earl of Bridgewater, then President of Wales – John Milton.
- ‘The Wondrich Take’, David Wondrich, Esquire Magazine
- Spirituous Journey – Book One: From the birth of spirits to the birth of the cocktail. Jared Brown + Anistatia Miller 2009