Historians speculate that the mint julep as we know it today was born in the early 1700s somewhere on east coast of the United States. The first reference to the mint julep in print is in an 1803 account by John Davis of London, who describes it as a "dram of spirituous liquor that has mint in it, taken by Virginians in the morning. The word “julep” is derived from a Persian word meaning rose water. Chris Morris from Woodford Reserve Bourbon comments, "Centuries ago, there was an Arabic drink called julab, made with water and rose petals. The beverage had a delicate and refreshing scent that people thought would instantly enhance the quality of their lives." When the julab was introduced to the regions around the Mediterranean the local population replaced the rose petals with the local mint plant. Thereafter the drink grew in popularity throughout Europe using mint and water.
Traditionally, in the United States, a mint julep is made of four, and only four, ingredients: mint, sugar, bourbon, and water (some of which enters the mix as fine ice). The traditional Virginia recipe was served at the “Old White,” the historic inn at the Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. One account states, “Here in this dark, cool room, scented with great masses of fragrant mint that lay upon mountains of crushed ice, in the olden days were created the White Sulphur mint julep and the Virginia toddy, for which this place was famous the world over.” It makes sense that a drink tied to the aristocracy of the south at The Greenbrier would make an appearance at the Kentucky Derby - another stronghold of Southern tradition.
The Kentucky derby is traditionally held at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May. According to the Derby Museum, the mint julep has been Churchill Downs’ signature drink and connected with the Kentucky Derby since 1938. Currently, about 100,000 juleps are served at Churchill Downs over the two-day period that includes the running of the Derby. The drinks are almost all served in specially made Kentucky Derby collectible glasses. The collectable glasses were first sold in 1938 with an iced mint julep for 75 cents.
Spearmint is the mint of choice used in Southern states. Some use a fresh mint sprig primarily as a garnish. However, its use to introduce the flavor and aroma through the nose while sipping is a critical part of the drink. If mint leaves are used in the preparation and not just floating on top, they should just be very lightly bruised. Others claim a proper preparation of the cocktail is one of a related family of drinks called "smashes" (a brandy smash and the mojito are other examples). In each of these, fresh mint and other ingredients are muddled or crushed in preparation for flavoring the finished drink. The muddling or crushing releases essential oils and juices into the mixture, intensifying the flavor of the added ingredient(s). Specific small glass tools are made for the purpose of muddling the aromatic mint. Not surprisingly, these are called “muddlers.”
Traditionally, mint juleps were served in silver or pewter cups and held only by the bottom and top edges of the cup. The frost that forms on the outside of the metal cup is an important part of the experience. Holding it thus reduces the heat transferred from hand to the silver or pewter cup. Today, mint juleps are commonly served in a tall old-fashioned glass with a straw. If using silver or pewter glasses, place them in the freezer at least half an hour before serving to attain the desired chill. To serve, handle the frozen tumbler or goblet by the edges with a clean towel, careful to not mar any of the frost on the container.
Although there are an almost endless variety of mint julep recipes, the following is a friend’s version:
Begin with 2 cups of water and add 2 cups white/refined sugar. Place the lightly crushed mint leaves, about 1/2 cup loosely filled, into the water and sugar in a sauce pan. Bring to a boil over high heat until the sugar is dissolved. Allow the syrup to cool. Pour the syrup through a strainer or cloth to remove the mint leaves.
Fill 8 cups with fine crushed ice (not ice cubes). Pour 4 ounces of bourbon and 1/4 cup of mint juice into each glass. Top each with a spring of mint and a straw. The straw should be short (trim if necessary), so it reaches just above the top of the cup/glass. This places the fresh mint near you when sipping and adds the fresh mint aroma to the taste. And, of course, don’t forget that the drinks should be served from a silver platter!