On the Julep

A dram of spirituous liquor that has mint steeped in it, taken by Virginians of a morning.

The Mint Julep is rumored to have led to as many arguments over the nature of the drink as the Martini, if not more since it’s a Southern invention and we’re pugnacious folk. Also like the Martini, some recipes abandon the pretense that there’s more than spirit in the drink, most notably the following by Henry Watterson.

Pluck the mint gently from its bed, just as the dew of the evening is about to form upon it. Select the choicer sprigs only, but do not rinse them. Prepare the simple syrup and measure out a half-tumbler of whiskey. Pour the whiskey into a well-frosted silver cup, throw the other ingredients away and drink the whiskey.

Mr. Watterson’s recipe is humorous, much like the humor in glancing at the vermouth while pouring the gin, but the ceremony obvious in the first part of the recipe is typical.

Eric Felten tells an amusing account of Roosevelt v. Newett which serves to highlight that a julep is more than just the Mint Julep. It’s a whole class of drinks. Whereas a cocktail in simple form is any spirit, sugar, water, and bitters, the julep is any spirit, sugar, crushed or shaved ice, and lots of garnish. And sometimes without the spirit: It started in Persia as rose water, جلاب, then slowly evolved into a medicinal concoction in Europe, and on to something worth drinking in America. The recipes compiled at Webtender offer a nice sample of juleps, as does CocktailDB. What distinguishes a julep from a smash? Quantity. Details are to be found in Jerry Thomas’s How to Mix Drinks, David Wondrich’s Imbibe!, and a couple of tomes dedicated entirely to the Mint Julep.

You’ll want to watch Chris McMillian hold forth.

Mint Julep

  • mint
  • 1 tsp. fine sugar
  • splash of water
  • 2 oz. fine bourbon. All right, maybe 4 oz. It’s a hot day. Adjust the size of your glass as necessary.
  • ice
  • more ice

Build, with the care you used in holding your first child.

Gently, ever so gently, pluck 12 or so leaves from freshly cut sprigs of mint, and place in the bottom of your glass. Add one bar spoon of fine sugar and a splash of water. Press together gently — you’re not making a mojito — enough to dissolve the sugar in the water and distribute the mint oils around the glass.

Crush some ice. No, that’s not enough. Crush some more. Now crush it again. The bourbon will be cradled in this finely crushed ice.

Place a spoon in your glass, then pile the ice on top of the mint and sugar, leaving about a half inch free. Pour the bourbon over the ice and stir gently. A frost will form on the outside of the glass. Remove the spoon and add more ice. Slap a sprig of mint between your hands and add to the glass as garnish.

Enjoy. “They are, in fact, like the American ladies, irresistible.”