The Long, Strange, Southern History of the Mint Julep
Just like its signature mint leaves, the cocktail’s origins are muddled at best.
The Mint Julep: there’s a certain swagger involved in the order—a certain Southern gravitas derived from the days that its legendary hospitality dictated the offering of elaborate cocktails like the julep to guests.
Like all cocktails as old as this one is, its origins are muddled at best. Since its beginning, the Mint Julep has become more egalitarian, you don’t have to be sitting in a rocking chair with a flyswatter to enjoy one, for example. But you don’t become the official adult beverage of the fanciest day in sports by being any old cocktail: it takes a certain amount of confidence to order one.
The julep became the official drink of the Kentucky Derby in the 1930s after more than a decade of prohibition's inferior homemade liquor gave rise to elaborate cocktails to mask the swill. But its origins go much further back than the Volstead Act.
Unverifiable tales say the Mint Julep made its debut when an 18th-century Kentucky man searching near the Mississippi River for water to add to his bourbon found wild mint instead. He added some to his cocktail and began a southern tradition. How did we get to mint leaves in a canteen to $1,000 juleps in silver cups with gold plated straws? Oddly enough, it’s temperance crusaders.
From the 1890s, when zealots made it their business to impose themselves on America’s pleasures, to the 1950s, when America’s tastes for cocktails were still informed by the heavy mixers of the prohibition years, the Mint Julep was the unofficial drink of the entire South.
Derived from the same Persian root word (gulab) as the gulab jamun you may have seen on the menu at your local Indian restaurant, julep was once a catchall term for a variety of sugary cocktails whose American history goes back to the Revolutionary War.
Enjoyed as a breakfast drink for Virginia farmers before their daily chores, juleps were made with whatever spirits were available and mixed with local fruits or herbs. By the time the children of those enterprising Virginia farmers made it to Kentucky, the story goes, the ancestral julep got the minty kick it needed to become something more than just a beverage.
Ode to mint
By the end of the 19th century, the mint variety had so become a part of Louisville’s food and drink culture that one writer, Joshua Soule Smith of the Lexington Herald, wrote an ode to the drink that begins with the portentous lines, “Then comes the zenith of man’s pleasure. Then comes the Mint Julep.”
The piece is to Mint Juleps as Casey at the Bat is to baseball, and it’s hard to argue against the stately tone with which Smith makes a place for the beverage in sporting history.
His piece is particularly important to julep lore for two reasons: first, it illustrates just how popular the cocktail had become by the turn of the century (he was writing in 1891), and second, it illustrates exactly how everyone holding a Mint Julep—either by the rim or at the bottom, allowing a frost to build up on the traditional julep cup—feels, just for a brief moment. His words resonate for the julep drinker, even a century after the fact.
“When it is made, sip it slowly,” the final paragraph begins. “August 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—it is a dream itself.
No other land can give you so much 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.” In our experience, he couldn't have relayed the feeling better.