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The Mint Julep: “The Zenith of Man’s Pleasure”

Gretchen Skedsvold

Late 19th Century journalist J. Soule Smith famously wrote an ode to the Mint Julep in which he dubbed the cocktail “the Zenith of Man’s Pleasure” and “the very dream of drinks,” amongst other (arguably) hyperbolic claims of greatness. Today, Mint Julep guru Chris McMillan recites this poem at Bar Uncommon in New Orleans before he serves up his world-famous version of the cocktail. McMillan, who is lauded as possessing the charm of bartenders of old, says of the Julep, “each sip is different from the one preceding it. Few drinks have that multidimensionality, building to the crescendo—which I think is the payoff of the Julep—of the bourbon and the mint together,” Indeed, the love affair of the mint and bourbon is highlighted in Smith’s poem. He writes:

It is the very dream of drinks, the vision of sweet quaffings. 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. Gracious and kind it is, living only for the sake of others. The crushing of it only makes its sweetness more apparent. Like a woman’s heart, it gives its sweetest aroma when bruised. Among the first to greet the spring, it comes. Beside the gurgling brooks that make music in the pastures it lives and thrives.

The gurgling creek in Smith’s poem evokes an old legend of the Mint Julep’s U.S. origins in which a wayward wanderer was searching for water for his Bourbon on the banks of the Mississippi. When he found an abundance of wild mint growing there he added a little to his tincture and, voila! Mint Julep. This old wives' tale begs the question where does the beguiling Mint Julep find its great beginnings? 

Like many cocktails, the origin of the Mint Julep is disputed - its genesis shrouded in legend. The etymology of Julep is julab - Persian for rose. Merriam Webster defines Julep as 1. a drink consisting of a liquor (such as bourbon or brandy) and sugar poured over crushed ice and garnished with mint 2. a drink consisting of sweet syrup, flavoring, and water. In fact, the first recorded Julep is thought to be a simple concoction of water and roses. Stanley Clisby Arthur, author of Famous New Orleans’s Drinks and How to Make Them, dates this drink back to 1400 AD.     

The drink gained popularity in colonial times as a tonic. Aristocrats would often begin their day fortified with a Mint Julep, which they sipped delicately in bed. The libation was credited with curing stomach ailments and fighting off disease. It came to be recognized as a symbol of wealth and prestige, a form of conspicuous consumption if you will. The drink required a silver-serving vessel – a coveted and costly possession - ice, which was a luxury item, and a trustworthy servant (one who would not steal the silver or the Bourbon) to produce and serve the drink appropriately, dressed in an Irish white linen to keep the vessel cold but the guest's hand warm. 

J. Soule Smith states in his ode “he who has not tasted it has lived in vain.” So do yourself a favor and try a Julep before you kick the proverbial can (or silver cup). May we suggest mixing one up this weekend during the 2017 Kentucky Derby which airs Saturday at 2:30pm ET. According the official website, 120,000 mint Juleps are served each year at the event requiring 10,000 bottles of bourbon, 1,000 pounds of fresh mint and 60,000 pounds of ice. But first, a few suggestions from Mint Julep Master Chris MacMillan:

  • Use a metal mug – it’s better for conducting cold
  • Don’t over muddle the mint! Instead, gently press the mint leaves to release their oil, covering the sides of the mug. Over muddling releases the bitter components of the leaves.
  • Hand crush ice with a Lewis bag and mallet for perfect consistency (and to look profesh)
  • Coat the mug with a small amount of sugar while muddling but finish the drink with the simple syrup on top. “I like to put the sugar on afterward, à la Soule Smith, so you don’t have to get to the bottom of the drink in order to get to the reward,” Says MacMillan. You can adjust the amount according to your personal preference. 
  • Slap the mint before you garnish the drink! It releases more of the oils. 
  • Wrap it up…with a napkin, as this is the traditional way the drink is served. 

With these tips in mind, here is a basic recipe for a Julep:

2 1/2 oz. bourbon
1 oz. simple syrup
12-15 fresh mint leaves
Crushed ice
Tools: muddler, Lewis Bag, Mallet (if you’re feeling fancy)
Glass: julep or Old Fashioned
Garnish: fresh mint sprig dusted in superfine sugar

Place the mint and 1/4 ounce of the simple syrup in a julep cup or Old Fashioned glass and gently muddle, working the leaves up the side of the glass. Loosely pack the glass with crushed ice, then add bourbon and drizzle remaining peach syrup on top. Garnish.

For a variation on the drink, use a rose or peach infused simple syrup. Both are a great twist on the classic.