The Mint Julep’s Brandy Roots
A look back at the history of the iconic Kentucky Derby drink.
On Jan. 11, 1770, the Williamsburg Virginia Gazette published “A Short Poem on Hunting,” signed by one “S.X.” As for the quality of the poem, well, it’s safe to say that if our S.X. (perhaps a Mr. Essex?) was friends with Calliope, the muse of narrative poetry, he was getting no benefits from the relationship.
At least his verses are vivid:
Here is the rosy light of a clear, quiet dawn, there is the boy leading out the horses, there the dogs, unleashed yet obedient, their eager barks mingling with the call of the hunting horn. But what are the gents doing? Apparently, they’re clustered together, sharing a stirrup cup before they set off. And then,
“The sportsmen ready, and the julep o’er,
Which doctors storm at, and which some adore,
We soon are mounted, and direct our way
To brusque the coverts where the foxes lay.”
This passage marks the print debut of the mighty Mint Julep, America’s first native mixed drink and, when properly constructed, as potent an argument that there is some spark of benevolent force left in the universe; someone out there who still seeks to ease the stony, steep path humankind must ever climb.
Like most American things at the time, the Julep had deep roots in England. There, a “julep” was a medicinal drink, a sugar syrup infused with herbs and other medicinal substances (the word, derived from gûl-ab, the Persian word for rosewater, came to English via the great Arab physicians whose works stood at the foundation of Medieval European medicine). Every once in a while, there might be a little shot of something spirituous mixed into this ur-NyQuil, but then the doctors generally made sure there was also something weird or nasty in there to balance out the pleasant smack of the hooch. They were physicians, after all, not mere mixologists.
In 1749, the great English novelist Henry Fielding flipped things around when he described the bottle of wine his character Squire Western—the archetypical blustery, red-faced English country gentleman—shouts for whenever something “either pleased or vexed him” as his “medicinal julap.” The planters in Virginia, it seems, merely made this metaphor literal, by openly attaching the name “Julep” to a straight recreational drink. (After all, if, according to our S.X., the doctors stormed at the drink, just how medicinal could it be?)
Apparently, by 1770 the drink was widespread in Virginia: Not only did S.X. see no need to explain it when he mentioned it, but there is also the 1770 play, The Candidates, by Robert Munford of Mecklenburg County, which includes a (not over-sober) “Mr. Julip” among the characters.
The first descriptions of what precisely this Virginia Julep was comes right after the Revolution. In 1784, one English traveler there observed the locals taking “a julap, made of rum, water, and sugar, but very strong” immediately upon rising. (That would send me right back to bed.) Mint is the obvious missing ingredient, without which—as one mixologist observed in 1869—the Julep “is like play of Hamlet, with the Prince left out.” A recipe including the mint was documented in July 1793, in Norfolk, by the Rev. Harry Toulmin. He noted that, “As soon as you get up, your host may possibly invite you to partake of his julep, which is a tumbler of rum and water, well sweetened, with a slip of mint in it.”
The combination of rum, sugar, water, and mint, I should note, had already been recorded in 1787 in southern Pennsylvania, under the alternative name of “Mint Sling.” But that was just a couple days’ ride north of the Virginia border. Before that it was also found in an odd and isolated note in the Boston New-England Courant from way back in December 1721, when one reader offers to treat some of the others to “a Dram of Rum and [spirituous and generally sweetened] Mint-Water.” I would like to know more about this combination—was it a staple? A one-off? Something in between? Still, not quite a Julep, not without the fresh mint.
By the first decade of the 19th century, rum was out. America was getting rich, and old, mellow French brandy was the order of the day when it came to making Juleps. (The raw, oily spirit that passed for whiskey back then was not something that a gentleman would drink if he could help it, particularly in Virginia—there were, after all, such things as standards. The ladies, who apparently loved their Juleps just as much as the gents did, didn’t care for whiskey either.)
What’s more, down in Virginia there was another new ingredient: ice. If the mint was Hamlet, ice was Shakespeare’s poetry, that touches all with its genius and unites even the sharpest, strongest elements into a beautiful whole. We first see it in a Norfolk paper in May 1807, in an advertisement for the Wig-Wam Gardens, then opening for the season. There, you could wash down your “relishes of oysters, bacon or venison ham” with, among other things, “Iced Mint Julips.” With ice, the Julep evolved from a potent local curiosity to a universal classic.
One of the main apostles of the iced Julep was Willard, bartender at the City Hotel in New York, for a time the best in the nation. One day in 1817, as he used to tell the story, a customer from Virginia showed the young bartender how to make a proper Virginia Julep, ice and all. Willard, a quick young man, took to making them for his customers, turning a drink made in Virginia homes into a standard American bar drink.
Over the next few decades, the Julep dominated American drinking. Everyone who came here had to try it. In some circles, it got fancy: black bartenders in the South specialized in its garnishes, building lofty, ice-peaked Julep towers in massive silver goblets, and German immigrants tinkered with its ingredients, supplementing the French brandy with fine wines from Spain and Portugal and France. Eventually, a little whiskey even began sneaking into the drink, as in the version encountered at a resort in Berkeley Springs, Virginia (now West Virginia) in 1857, that called for three parts Cognac and one part good old American rye whiskey. (This “Prescription Julep,” as we now call it, after the old recipe which was presented in that form, is I will admit truly delicious). By the 1840s, American rye and bourbon had matured into something a gentleman or a lady could sneak a portion of without too much derangement to the system. In Jerry Thomas’ groundbreaking 1862 Bar-Tenders Guide, there was even a recipe for a Whiskey Julep. Of course, the Mint Julep on the previous page calls for 3 ounces of Cognac and no whiskey at all, but still, it was progress.
But it still wasn’t until the 1870s and 1880s, with the collapse of brandy-drinking in America due to phylloxera in France, the post-Civil War impoverishment of the brandy-drinking Southern aristocracy and the ascendancy of American whiskey, that the Mint Julep became a whiskey drink. In the 1874 American Bartender, plagiarized largely from Thomas, there was a key change: It was the Brandy Julep that got a secondary mention while the Mint Julep was a whiskey drink. Even then, there were holdouts, such as the editorialist in the Chicago Herald who in 1888 sputtered that “the proper mint julep is built of brandy, not whiskey.” It was a lost cause, particularly since the Julep itself was disappearing from American bars, subsumed in a new wave of lighter, less paralyzingly alcoholic summer drinks: Coolers, Fizzes, Rickeys, Highballs, Daisies, so on and so forth. The Mint Julep wrapped itself in Southern identity, clung to its bourbon, and retired, only to emerge once a year for Derby day.
I have nothing against a Whiskey Julep. Made with mellow, properly aged bourbon (the words “Elijah Craig” come to mind) it is a rich and complex drink, with a bright woody tang that makes one wish for another. (And there’s no need for a silver cup; such things are nice to have but a well-made Julep tastes just as good in a highball glass—it was, after all, a standard bar drink, and bars are not in the habit of issuing coin-silver cups to their customers, not if they want to stay in business.)
But to try one with, say, the darkly-spiced Martell Cordon Bleu or the thick and juicy Hennessy XO (or, frankly, almost any fully-aged Cognac or Armagnac) and the traditional float of funky Jamaican rum is to, for a moment, stand high on a mountain peak, gazing down at your poor fellow-mortals who are still struggling with ropes and pitons and dangling bags of finely-powdered chalk.
The Antebellum Julep
2 tsp Sugar
.5 oz Water
5 or 6 Mint leaves
2.5 oz to 3 oz Brandy
.5 oz Smith & Cross Jamaican Rum
Garnish: 3 or 4 Mint sprigs
Glass: Julep or old-fashioned
Add the sugar and water to a highball glass. Stir to dissolve and add 5 or 6 mint leaves. Press lightly with a muddler. Pack the glass with finely-cracked ice. Add fine old brandy (or, if you prefer, 2 oz brandy and .5 oz fine old rye whiskey). Stir and top with more finely-cracked ice to make up for shrinkage. Tuck 3 or 4 whole sprigs of mint into the glass, creating a little forest of mint on top. Carefully float the Smith & Cross Jamaican Rum (or any other strong, aromatic rum) on top by pouring it gently over the back of a spoon held against the inside rim of the glass. Add 2 straws, cut if necessary so they just poke up over the mint. Let this sit for 3 or 4 minutes. Then smile.