History: The mint julep is so associated with the South that even Bostonians have a hard time ordering it without a reflexive drawl. Of course, the bourbon-and-mint bracer is most closely identified as the cocktail of choice among Kentucky Derby revelers, with Churchill Downs slinging 120,000 over the first weekend in May. But like biscuits and magnolias, the julep’s aura glows over the entire South, so it’s fitting that its genesis doesn’t owe to a specific eureka moment, but instead is more of an inexorable evolution to greatness. The somewhat esoteric word julep, for instance, derives from the ancient Persian gulab through to the Latin julapium, pertaining to sweetened rosewater. The word further morphed on its journey to Colonial America, as did the drink. The 1803 page-turner Travels of Four and a Half Years in the United States of America noted a mint julep to be a somewhat medicinal “dram of spiritous liquor that has mint in it, taken by Virginians of a morning.” Virginians? Yes, but they likely fixed theirs with rum or brandy. It took the Bluegrass State, naturally, to perfect the formulation with its fine bourbon, and to prize the thing to the point of proscribing that it should be served with crushed ice in a special pewter “julep cup” to keep it frosty. “If you hand me a mint julep in anything else, I’m going to turn my nose up,” says Ti Martin, owner of Commander’s Palace and contributor to the Museum of the American Cocktail. “That cup, with water beading on the outside, is part of the whole feeling.”
Louisville bartender Tom Bullock, the first African-American author of a cocktail guide, 1917’s The Ideal Bartender, helped popularize the recipe beyond Kentucky’s borders to become a favorite of President Teddy Roosevelt and earn literary cred in no less than The Great Gatsby. As that novel’s Louisville-born socialite Daisy Buchanan no doubt knew, the mint julep can be an acquired taste. But when prepared with skill and a respect for the quality of ingredients, it can be sublime.
Mixologist Tip: A julep cup should be held at the top or bottom to keep from transferring body heat to the drink, the flavor of which is best expressed cold.
Variations: Sure, add some sparkle and panache with a pour of champagne, but be suspicious of any version that nixes the bourbon.