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Mint Julep History

Updated on April 4, 2018
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New World history is a rich field that is constantly being analyzed for new material. The complexity of these tales never fails to amaze me.

Mint Julep in a Silver Cup

Purists will insist that a Mint Julep be made in a silver cup, photo by Jami430
Purists will insist that a Mint Julep be made in a silver cup, photo by Jami430 | Source

Oh That Mint Julep

Today, the Mint Julep is associated with two things, the "Old South", and the Kentucky Derby and not necessarily in that order. For instance, on Derby Day, over 120,000 mint juleps are consumed just at Churchill Downs. In order to make all those mint juleps, about a half ton of mint is brought in to the race track.

And then, around the country, much more mint will be needed to satisfy the demands of all the racing fans, who choose to watch the sporting event from a neighborhood bar or the comfort of the home with a drink in hand. And among the many, who cherish a cold and sweet mint julep, few are aware that the julep is derived from an Arabic word, once used to describe a very different type of liquid refreshment.

The Fragrant Mint Plant

The fragrant Spearmint or Peppermint plant is the first choice among many
The fragrant Spearmint or Peppermint plant is the first choice among many

Middle East Origins

Surprisingly, the origins of the Mint julep can be traced all the way back to the Middle East, where Arabic speaking cultures made a non-alcoholic drink from rose petals and water that was commonly called a julep. Not only did this drink have a nice aromatic odor and refreshing taste, but many in the region believed that the addition of the rose petals was also good for one's health.

Then, as the drink moved into the Mediterranean region, crushed mint leaves replaced the rose petals, thus creating the first mint julab. By 1800, the julep had crossed the Atlantic, where alcoholic spirits were added, bringing life to an alcoholic tradition that still continues today.

The Julep Arrives in America

The first American juleps most likely contained rum, whiskey or brandy, as bourbon had not really been much developed at the time. It is important to note that life in the new nation that was officially referred to as the United States of America consisted of a much higher rate of alcohol consumption than what we experience today. Not only was life hard and demanding, but many influential people believed that an alcoholic drink in the morning was healthy. As a result the alcoholic version of the mint julep may have been first consumed as a health drink.

The Kentucky Senator Adds Bourbon

Henry Clay is often contributed with creating the modern mint julep
Henry Clay is often contributed with creating the modern mint julep | Source

Henry Clay Adds Kentucky Bourbon

Several decades later (about 1850), Henry Clay, the senator from Kentucky, matched highly refined Kentucky Bourbon with the non-alcoholic ingredients of the Mint Julep to create something very similar to the mint julep that many enjoy today. The Round Robin Bar in the Willard Hotel, a favorite hangout for Clay and other Washington politicians, became known for serving the popular drink, a tradition, which still continues today.

Mint Julep History

Incidents of Mint Julep Consumption from the Files of Famous Persons

The Mint Julep has been popular in the U.S. for quite a while now, and to no one's surprise, the drink has accumulated its fair share of stories to help the medicine go down. For example, back in the early 1900s, President Theodore Roosevelt would offer a mint julep to anyone who would play tennis with him. However, the Rough Rider showed his NY roots, as he always substituted rye whiskey and a touch of brandy for the usual Kentucky bourbon.

Another incident involves, legendary barfly, Ernest Hemingway, who reportedly once got so disgusted with his mint julep that he drew his glass against the wall.

And then there is the winner's circle at the Kentucky Derby, where the winning jockey gets to toast the governor of Kentucky. The drink, of course, is none other than the ever-popular mint julep.

The Clovers Sampling a Mint Julep

The Clovers celebrating their 1951 R&B hit single, "One Mint Julep",
The Clovers celebrating their 1951 R&B hit single, "One Mint Julep",

The Mint Julep Makes the R&B Music Charts

Contrary to what you see in the Ana Gasteyer video, "One Mint Julep" was originally written in the 1950s as satirical, black commentary about what can happen when a man of color has just one mint julep. The songwriter, Rudy Toombs, and the band, the Clovers, which made a hit from the nifty drinkin' tune, were both stable performers on the "Chitlin" circuit.

Toombs, who began his performing career tap dancing in Harlem, is best known for his other drinking song, "One Scotch, One Bourbon, One Beer".

"One Mint Julep"

Henry Clay's Mint Julep Recipe

Henry Clay's Kentucky-Style Mint Julep

(As interpreted by Round Robin bartender Jim Hewes)

2 ounces Maker's Mark bourbon (or another premium Kentucky bourbon)

2 ounces San Pellegrino sparkling water

8-10 fresh mint leaves, plus a sprig of mint for garnish (Hewes uses red-stem mint)

2 cups crushed ice (dry, not slushy)

1 teaspoon granulated sugar plus a bit more to taste

1 thin strip lemon peel

1 julep cup (crystal or silver), frosted in the freezer

1 straw

Add one teaspoon of sugar, the mint leaves, one ounce bourbon, and one ounce sparkling water to the julep cup. Using the heel of a butter knife, muddle for about a minute until it forms a tea. Add a half cup of crushed ice and muddle some more. Add the rest of the ice, keeping it tightly packed. Pour in the rest of the bourbon and sparkling water. Garnish with a sprig of mint and top with the lemon peel and a dusting of sugar. Wedge the straw just behind the mint sprig so when you lean in for a sip, you get a peppery whiff.

Sources The History of the Mint Julep The Round Robin Bar;'s Mint Julep. Colonial Americans Drank Roughly Three Times as Much as Americans Do Now

© 2018 Harry Nielsen


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