The History of the Mint Julep is Well, a Bit Muddled in Prose and Folklore [Video]

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There are only a few cocktails that are tied to a specific date on the calendar. One of those cocktails is the Mint Julep. The Mint Julep is best known for the first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby. The origins of the Mint Julep started long before the Derby and long before Kentucky was even a state.

Can’t you just smell the mint?

Mint Leaves

Cat Platz, Brand Champion for the Brown-Forman Whisky Portfolio recently shared the history of the Mint Julep at Bourbons Bistro. Platz says the history is a bit clouded and uncertain. The best they can tell, the julep dates back to the 1700’s. The term “julep” comes from the Arabic or Persian word meaning “rose water.” It’s believed that rose petals were originally used in the julep. The juleps were used as a vehicle for delivering unpleasant tasting medicines. Over time, rose petals were replaced with mint which was native to the Mediterranean. The drink spread to Europe and made its way to the U.S. and particularly the Virginia area. Back in the day, farmers were known to have enjoyed a Mint Julep as an “early morning starter” similar to the way we enjoy coffee today.

Mint Julep Winners Circle CupThe Mint Julep officially became part of the Kentucky Derby in 1938. It was served in a souvenir cup for around $.75. Today, it’s more in the $10 range. If you are interested in the deluxe version, check out how you can purchase a $1,000 or $2,500 custom version of the Mint Julep. It’s all for a good cause, to raise money for the Wounded Warrior Equestrian Program.

Kentucky Folklore

According to “The Social History of Bourbon” from The University Press of Kentucky variants on the basic mint julep have been around for years amd Kentuckians have been awarding silver julep cups as prizes at county fairs as long ago as 1816. As Lawrence S. Thompson, who is a scholar and a Kentucky gentleman, put it, “Pretenders and upstarts … have attempted to produce ‘the very dream of drinks’ from corn whisky sweetened with molasses…” and goes on to flatly assert, “There is but one bonafide mint julep…[it is] indigenous to the Bluegrass.”

The Mint Julep in Prose, Circa 1880

The most lyric tribute ever penned by the encomiasts of the Mint Julep comes from the files of the Lexington Herald newspaper. A jeu d’esprit of the Lexington attorney, Judge Soule Smith (1848-1904), Smith’s recipe and panegyric is one of the great set pieces of southern eloquence, wit and humor. It goes like this:

Then comes the zenith of man’s pleasure. Then comes the julep – the mint julep. Who has not tasted one has lived in vain. The honey of Hymettus brought no such solace to the soul; the nectar of the gods is tame beside it. It is the very dream of drinks, the vision of sweet quaffings. The Bourbon and the mint are lovers. In the same land they live, on the same food are they fostered. The mint dips its infant leaf into the same stream that makes the Bourbon what it is. The corn grows in the level lands through which small streams meander. (Limestone lined of course!) By the brook-side the mint grows. As the little wavelets pass, they glide up to kiss the feet of the growing mint, and the mint bends to salute them.

Gracious and kind it is, living only for the sake of others. The crushing of it only makes the sweetness more apparent. Like a woman’s heart it gives its sweetest aroma when bruised. Among the first to greet the spring, it comes. Beside the gurgling brooks that make music in the pastures it lives and thrives. When the bluegrass begins to shoot its gentle sprays to sun, mint comes, and its sweetest soul drinks at the crystal brook. It is virgin then. But soon it must be married to old Bourbon. His great heart, his warmth of temperament, and that affinity which no one understands, demands the wedding.

How shall it be? Take from the cold spring some water, pure as angels are; mix it with sugar till it seems like oil. Then take a glass and crush your mint within it with a spoon – crush it around the borders of the glass and leave no place untouched. Then throw the mint away – it is a sacrifice. Fill with cracked ice the glass; pour in the quantity of Bourbon which you want. It trickles slowly through the ice. Let it have time to cool, then pour your sugared water over it. No spoon is needed; no stirring allowed – just let it stand a moment. Then around the brim place sprigs of mint, so that the one who drinks may find taste and odor at one draught.

When it is made, sip it slowly. August (insert May for Kentucky Derby time) suns are shining, the breath of the south wind is upon you. It is fragrant, cold and sweet – it is seductive. No maiden’s kiss is tenderer or more refreshing, no maiden’s touch could be more passionate. Sip it and dream – you cannot dream amiss. Sip it and dream – it is a dream itself. No other land can give so sweet solace for your cares; no other liquor soothes you in melancholy days. Sip it and say there is no solace for the soul, no tonic for the body like old Bourbon whiskey.

Here is the prose beautifully interpreted by mixologist Chris McMillian (It’s worth the time!)

Bourbans Bistro
Bourbons Bistro

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