Like many of our classic drinks the Mint Julep started life as a restorative concoction, particularly to quell an upset stomach.
The word “Julep” has its origins in Persian, “gulab” meaning sweetened water or rose water. By the time the word has passed through Spanish Arabic it had become “julepe”. Its likely route to the Americas is through the Spanish Conquistadors in the 17th century where it became “julep”.
A very American cocktail its home is in the southern states and is most often made with Bourbon although it can be made to a variety of recipes with different core spirits. In Jerry Thomas’ Bartenders Guide of 1887 he describes the “Real Georgia Mint Julep” using cognac and peach brandy but he also has variations with gin and whiskey.
The Mint Julep became the official drink of the Kentucky Derby in 1938 where you will have it served in the traditional metal tumbler. Those in the know will be holding it by the rim or the very bottom to keep the frosty condensation on the outside of the tumbler.
Most recipes require muddling 4 or 5 leaves at the bottom of the tumbler, add the crushed ice to at least the rim then pour in your bourbon. Give it a slight stir with a spoon but not too much as you don’t want the ice melting before you start drinking.
Harry MacElhone (Harry’s New York Bar – Paris) wrote in 1919 to pack the tumbler half full of ice then pour in half the bourbon, pack more ice in then add the other half, stirring each time. He suggests a sugar coated sprig of mint as a garnish which is interesting as I was told by a barman recently that icing sugar coated garnishes are the latest thing in cocktail presentation.
Our other great hero, “Professor” Jerry Thomas, wrote in 1887 to stir the mint leaves at the bottom of the tumbler “but do not crush the mint.”
Hemingway was a great admirer of Taylor Williams, the head guide at the Sun Valley Resort in Idaho. He was famous for his Mint Juleps as well as being a tough sportsman which drew Hemingway to him. While fishing with Mary Hemingway in a marlin competition in Cuba in 1951 he broke two ribs and had a “lump on his head like half a baseball and he paid no attention to it…” wrote Hemingway.
Hemingway must have got used to the way the Colonel made his juleps as he reportedly threw his glass against the wall of a French bar just after the second world war shouting, “Doesn’t anyone in this godforsaken country know how to make a mint julep?”. An American journalist was in the bar and pulled a bottle of Makers Mark out of his bag and mixed up a pitcher in time to stop further trouble.
Hemingway had been regularly visiting Idaho since 1939 and it was here he would purchase what was to be his last home in 1959. The cool climate as well as the hunting and fishing appealed to him and it was here he built his most loyal group of friends including actor Gary Cooper, Dorothy Parker and writers, Tillie and Lloyd Arnold.
I had my first Mint Julep in the terrific 1806 bar in Melbourne. Named after the year when the word “cocktail” was first recorded, they have a fantastic menu dedicated to the history of the cocktail. Laid out in chronological order, you can drink yourself through time from a Punch to a Penicillin.
This is an extremely refreshing drink and is ideal on a hot humid afternoon. The recipe above has a fair hit of bourbon (3 shots)but don’t be afraid to go lighter if you plan to make it to evening.