The Mint Julep: 'The Very Dream of Drinks'

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Danielle Scott/flickr

To try Derek's recipe for a classic Mint Julep, click here.

It's Kentucky Derby time, or is that really Mint Julep time? As much as the blanket of roses awarded to the winning thoroughbred, the image of frost-coated silver cups brimming with red-stemmed mint leaves and crushed ice marks the Derby. The two minutes of racing is generally subsumed by two days of drinking, where some 80,000 Mint Juleps are served. Thirsty yet? I know I am.

Yet the reality is too often plastic cups and prefab mint syrups, sweet and flaccid. A poorly made Mint Julep is the frozen pizza or canned espresso of the cocktail-world, icy cold and devoid of ritual. It's like watching baseball played by mannequins or jazz played by Michael Bolton. The Mint Julep is a soulful expression of our culture and deserves the patience and love of our most cherished experiences. It's not just the drink alone; it's the passion of those who have made them before us.

The Julep itself is a drink born of antiquity. According to Stanley Clisby Arthur, the earliest reference to the Julep dates back to 1400 A.D. It comes from the Arabic word for rose (julab), and was originally an invigorating drink of roses and water. It was also a tonic during Colonial times. The Mint Julep is just one variety of the latest version of this proud drink. There are Champagne Juleps, Gin Juleps, and the like. Yet the Mint Julep is the one we cleave to because of the combination of old American Bourbon and the delicate aromas of mint. Joshua Soule Smith, a Kentucky Colonel writing in the 1890s, poetically remarked:

The Bourbon and the mint are lovers. In the same land they live, on the same food they are fostered. The mint dips its infant leaf into the same stream that makes the bourbon what it is. The corn grows in the level lands through which small streams meander. By the brook-side the mint grows. As the little wavelets pass, they glide up to kiss the feet of the growing mint, the mint bends to salute them.

His lyrical salute to the Julep includes the refrain, "Who has not tasted one has lived in vain." So then how is this "very dream of drinks" properly rendered? Bon vivant and Prohibition-era writer Charles H. Baker Jr. gives us the following advice, which I find useful:

    1. Chill glasses, whether silver cups or otherwise.

    2. Use glasses of sixteen ounce capacity.

    3. Use two and a half jiggers of likker for sixteen ounce glass, two for fourteen ounce.

    4. Use red-stemmed mint, simply because red-stemmed mint is more pleasantly aromatic. Use fresh mint, and cut stems short just before putting in as final garnish—to make them bleed.

     5. Don't bruise that first installment of tender mint leaves more than very slightly. The inner leaf juices are bitter and cannot have profitable flavour. Bruise one between the teeth, then chew it up and find out.

     6. Don't expect to get a whacking good Julep out of six months old "bourbon" or "rye." We can't.

     7. Don't use coarse ice, use finely cracked ice—very fine.

    8. Don't over-garnish with sliced orange and random fruits. With Juleps, and in fact any drink of delicate quality in its own right, don't add anything with a different strong scent—and orange, lemon, and certain other fruits have a very potent aroma ... The aroma of a bourbon Julep should be bourbon and mint—not bourbon, mind, and a fruit store. Garnish simply without trying to gild the lily. A julep is more than a mere chilled liquid; it is a tradition which is to be respected.

In our times, there is only one bartender I know who deserves the crown once awarded the late, great D.C. bartender, George C. Williamson, "King of Julep Makers." That bartender is Chris McMillian. He not only makes a potent cup but also can recite the Joshua Soule Smith poem cited above by heart, and I do mean by heart. I nearly wept like a baby the first time I heard him recite it. If you're lucky enough to be near Bar UnCommon in New Orleans, please sit at his knee and wait for the Julep of your life. Otherwise, watch this video and follow along.

We're also very lucky to have Jim Hewes at the Round Robin Bar in Washington D.C., who is every bit the story teller as Chris McMillian and inherited his Julep recipe from Henry Clay. Although other Washingtonians denounced the addition of water in Clay's recipe when it was first introduced, Hewe's version is a refreshing and distinguished Julep.

Recipe: Mint Julep