The Mint Julep

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While I am a bit later than I should be in posting this cocktail, since the Kentucky Derby has already passed, I like to think that I’m extremely early in talking about this cocktail for the next year.  The Mint Julep is by far the most famous of the julep family of drinks, and has changed quite a bit since its’ original appearance as medicine.


Probably the old-fashioned julep is in its decadence as a public drink, but it does not follow that the art of constructing this famous Southern refresher is lost.  […] With her sleeves rolled up, the rosy granddaughter stirs sugar in a couple of table-spoonfuls of sparkling water, packs crushed ice to the top of the heavy cut-glass goblet, pours in the mellow whiskey until an overthrow threatens and then daintily thrust the mint sprays into the crevices.  And the old man, rousing from his dreams, blesses the vision which seems to rise up from the buried days of his youth, and with his gay nose nestling peacefully in the nosegay at the summit of his midday refresher, quaffs the icy drink, and with a long-drawn sigh of relief sinks back to dream again until the dinner bell sounds its hospitable summons.

 Except of a Georgia periodical found in Jerry Thomas’ Bartenders Guide (1887)

The julep is not a cocktail.  It lacks the bitters for it to be called a “true” cocktail.  Originally, the julep was medicine, appearing first in the early tenth-century in the text Kitab al-Mansuri, in which it appeared as “violets macerated with water and sugar” (Wondrich 152-153).  It has appeared in other places, including a fifteenth-century Latin translation of the same book, as well as in Philip Barrough’s Methode of Physicke (1583).  Slowly over time, in addition to the alcohol, the julep started adopting various herbs and spices which gave it the function of medicine.  Yet, despite appearing over an extended period of time, the julep was changed into a cordial drunk for fun, sometime around the late eighteenth-century (Ibid 153).  As Wondrich writes, “the American Julep began in the same kind of sophistry that allowed drinking a morning Cocktail to be called ‘taking one’s bitters’ (Ibid 154).  The beverage was one of the most popular drinks throughout the states, not only in the South, and as such, only really began to fade in popularity at the start of the twentieth century (Ibid 155).

Made with various ingredients, the julep as medicine quite often started off as a brandy drink, rarely being a whiskey based one, and had a bundle of fruit and leafy garnishes (Ibid).  The Mint Julep requires specifically one herb, that being mint.  The original version, given by Jerry Thomas, was a tablespoon of sugar, with two table spoons of water, mixed together, and infused with sprigs of mint pressed into the mixture (Ibid 157).  Thomas used brandy in his julep, about three ounces, and then garnished it with berries, orange slices, a dash of Jamaican rum, and powdered sugar (Ibid; Thomas 28).  Thomas also gives a recipe for a true Georgian Mint Julep, which includes a peach eau de vie in equal measures to that of the brandy (Thomas 28-29).  The use of whiskey became popular after the Civil War; prior, it was considered vulgar compared to other spirits such as brandy and rum, which were being used in various formats (Wondrich 154-156).

Interestingly, there is a strange variation on preparing the drink in which pineapple is used.  Craddock writes in the Savoy Cocktail Book, that “Epicures rub the lips of the tumbler with a piece of fresh pineapple, and the tumbler itself is often incrusted outside with stalactites of ice” (Craddock 207).  In this version, the pineapple helps to give a nice aroma to the edge of the drink, but it is somewhat lost when a lot of mint is used, or when a straw is used as the medium by which the alcohol is consumed.

There is a whole bunch of debate on how to properly prepare the Mint Julep, and how to handle the mint; this is not assisted by the moves towards more complicated methods in mixological preparation.  Personally, like any mint, when mint is going to be left as a garnish, I like to slap to the mint, so that the aromatics are expressed into the air, and the surface of the mint, giving it the lovely aroma and bouquet sought from mint as a herb.  Fresh mint is critical, not only for the garnish, but also for the oils to taste decent when expressed into the syrup.  Personally, I like to that the mint and gently press down upon the mint at the bottom of a glass so that the oils are expressed.  After that, add the liquor, and you can do one of two things: strain the mixture into another glass, to remove the mint, or keep the mint in the glass, and continue to build the julep.  Regardless, you are going to want to use crushed, or powdered, ice, filling the glass with it, and then giving it a brisk stir to drop the level of ice a little prior to adding more ice, and garnishing with more mint.  This method, assuming the mint is removed, is that set forth by Dale DeGroff (DeGroff 37). 

Like the handling of the mint, there is a concern over the type of glass utilized for the julep.  The use of a silver or pewter “julep” cup was not standardized until long after the julep became popular; originally, as demonstrated by Thomas’ manual, and the research of Wondrich, the beverage was served in glass tumblers.  Silver which is an excellent thermal conductor, works well for the beverage, which has garnished the claim that it is something to be enjoyed on a hot day.  Pewter, which has similar appearances to silver, can be cheap enough for the common enthusiast to own, and enable the beverage to still gather that frosty external visual appearance alongside a chilled tactile sensation.  Instead of a julep cup, I am using a Jefferson cup, which was designed by Thomas Jefferson, and has a nice appearance and form factor, weighing nicely in the hand and appearing a bit more simplistic than that of the extremely fancy julep cup.

Ice is important as well: make sure that the ice is fine, but also that it is dry: using something such as a lewis bag is essentially towards preventing over dilution, since the lewis bag will absorb excess water when crushing the ice with a muddler.  This helps to keep the drink at a well balanced level, one which does not turn it into tasting like flavored water.

As DeGroff notes, using a bonded bourbon is ideal, since the higher alcohol proof gives it a nicer burn, so that when diluted, it does not lose the characteristic flavor of whiskey (Ibid). If a lower proof spirit is used, you have to be careful to ensure that the liquor is not overly diluted.  Crushed ice has that tricky problem of melting rather quickly when stirred; this is because stirring causes agitation, and crushed ice, being very small particles, will rub against each other, creating more friction and mechanical heat than large cubes of ice.  Furthermore, as talked about before, the higher surface area exposes the ice to more liquid, which encourages it to give up its’ thermal properties faster; a large sphere, or cube, or chunk of ice has less surface area, and as such will not melt as fast since it has a solid “core” of cold temperature preventing it from overly diluting a cocktail.

Personally, I like to use demerara syrup in order to add to the depth of flavor found in the drink.  It really works well, giving it a nice flavor profile and assisting in blending, at least in my opinion, the bourbon with the mint.  Simple syrup ensures that the sugar is well dissolved, and that remnants of particles of sugar are not going to be found while sipping the drink.  By using a syrup, rather than sugar (even though the sugar is turned into a syrup prior to serving the drink), it ensures that the beverage will have a more uniform texture and taste, as well as ease in the length of time in preparing the beverage.

The Mint Julep (modern):

2 1/4 ounce bourbon (100 proof is best)
1/2 to 3/4 ounce simple syrup
Mint

Taking about five to eight mint leaves, lightly press the mint leaves in the simple syrup, extracting the oils into the syrup.  Add the bourbon.  Top the glass with ice, stirring briskly to induce a chill throughout the glass and simultaneously dilute the beverage.  After stirring, top with more ice, garnish with mint which has been slapped, and if using a straw, place the straw into the drink so that it is near the mint leaves, allowing the aroma to enter the nose of the quaffer.

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Craddock, Henry.  1999.  The Savoy Cocktail Book.  Originally published 1930.  London: Pavilion Books.

DeGroff, Dale. 2008. The Essential Cocktail: The Art of Mixing Perfect Drinks.  New York: Clarkson Potter/Publishers.

Thomas, Jerry.  1887.  Bartender’s Guide.  Reprint of original.  New York: Dick and Fitzgerald.

Wondrich, David. 2007. Imbibe!: From Absinthe Cocktail to Whiskey Smash, a Salute in Stories and Drinks to “Professor” Jerry Thomas, Pioneer of the American Bar. New York: Penguin Group.