A Complete History of the Mint Julep

It’s the drink that prompted Hemingway to throw his glass against a wall and even Teddy Roosevelt had a recipe. Here’s everything you need to know about the official cocktail of the Kentucky Derby.

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Okay, so you probably know that mint juleps have Southern origins and a long association with the Kentucky Derby. And that’s not a bad start.

You might even know that it is heresy to serve mint juleps in anything other than a silver cup, glistening with the cold sweat of shaved ice, or, failing that, the crushed stuff. And, if your drink doesn’t have fresh mint involved, then, hey, y’all just go get some kind of street vender “snow-cone” and pour any sort of cheap, vile booze on top of it and enjoy; you probably deserve each other.

But if you want to savor the drink’s historic and literary ties, along with the magic elixir (properly fashioned, of course) itself, then read on:

THE MINT JULEP’S ORIGINS ARE IN THE ARAB WORLD.
Woodford Reserve’s master distiller, Chris Morris, points out that “centuries ago, there was an Arabic drink called julab, made with water and rose petals. The beverage had a delicate and refreshing scent that people thought would instantly enhance the quality of their lives.” In the Mediterranean, indigenous mint replaced the rose petals and the “mint julep” rose in popularity.

THE DRINK GOT ITS FIRST MENTION IN PRINT IN 1803.
It was described as a “dram of spirituous liquor that has mint in it, taken by Virginians in the morning.”

HENRY CLAY INTRODUCED THE DRINK TO WASHINGTON, D.C. IN 1850.
The U.S. senator from Kentucky supposedly made the mint julep popular in Washington, D.C. at the Round Robin Bar. By some accounts, the bar at the Willard Hotel still uses Clay’s recipe to this day.

IT BECAME THE OFFICIAL DRINK OF THE KENTUCKY DERBY IN 1983.
Behind the scenes, bartenders and waiters are producing and delivering an estimated 120,000 mint juleps over a two-day racing card. That’s not quite one julep per spectator (a record crowd of 170,000-plus attended in 2015), but nonetheless a competitive ratio that blows through 10,000 bottles of Bourbon (“Old Forester,” from the folks at Brown-Forman, is the official supplier these days) and 60,000 tons of ice, ice, baby. And let us not forget 1,000 pounds of fresh mint.

Sure, there are a few attendees who choose to drink something else, but a lot of devotees are surely knocking back more than one. As Hunter S. Thompson observed when he covered the Kentucky Derby in 1970, (see HST’s The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved if you want some classic “Gonzo” journalism to go with your cocktail), a roistering army of spectators was “guzzling mint juleps with both hands.”

SCARLETT O’HARA APPROVED OF THE SMELL.
That the mint julep is an icon of Dixie was not lost upon Margaret Mitchell when she knocked out her blockbuster Civil War novel Gone With The Wind in 1936. The libation gets several mentions throughout, including this paragraph that suggests one might not have needed an extravagant men’s cologne to successfully woo Scarlett herself:

That Miss Scarlett was thinking these thoughts about her father Gerald O’Hara’s scent is something best left to Dr. Freud, but the important takeaway here is whiskey and mint smell (and taste) really good together!

A CONFEDERATE GENERAL DRANK THEM FOR BREAKFAST.
In 1862, General Richard Taylor (son of U.S. President Zachary Taylor) found himself marooned in an army camp near Charlottesville, VA—think thick mud, smelly soldiers, and really bad coffee—when suddenly a local aristocrat appeared and implored Taylor to “breakfast” with him on the veranda of his nearby mansion. It was not an offer to refuse and if Taylor harbored any pangs of guilt by accepting this invitation (while the rank-and-file stewed in the wet-boot stench of camp life) it was soon soothed away to afterthought by the appearance of a small tray upon which rested.

THEY WERE A HIT WITH U.S. PRESIDENTS.
Although the drink is generally thought to have hit its popular stride in the 19th Century, Andrew Jackson’s earliest biographer (James Parton) claims in his book that Ol’ Hickory (long before he was a famous general or president) “were drinking quantities of mint-julep” while he and an acquaintance gambled on a cockfight in Nashville in 1795!

Theodore Roosevelt slyly used mint juleps as an enticement to get his various cabinet members to play tennis with him. In fact, TR’s advisors were sometimes referred to as “the Tennis Cabinet”—though one muses that “the Mint Julep Cabinet” would not have been entirely far-fetched. Post-match, players were treated with the refreshing beverage, while Teddy “laughed with glee” as he ordered subsequent rounds as needed. No true Kentuckian would have tolerated Colonel Roosevelt’s mint julep recipe simply because the president’s steward used rye whiskey instead of bourbon and also added a dash of brandy to it.

Weirdly, Roosevelt once had to defend himself against a libelous editorial written by a newspaper owner in a remote part of Michigan. The gist of the muckraking editorial was that Teddy was a drunk who also swore like a stevedore. TR went all the way to Michigan to defend himself in court and allowed under oath that: “There was a fine bed of mint at the White House. I may have drunk a half dozen mint juleps in a year.”

Roosevelt’s prominent lawyer—James Pound of Detroit—then drew hearty laughs from the packed courtroom when he asked his client: “Did you drink them all at one time?”

Teddy won the suit going away. However, sad to say, President Calvin Coolidge (himself an advocate of temperance, especially during Prohibition) allowed some chickens to eat up the bed of fresh mint that had flourished at the White House during TR’s tenure. In his memoir 42 Years in the White House, staffer Ike Hoover wrote that he was not sure if Coolidge did this on purpose or that it was simply “in keeping with many other odd things the President was up to.”

THE ROUGH RIDER’S MINT JULEP
Killjoy Coolidge may have conspired with his chickens to obliterate TR’s bed of fine fresh mint, but the president’s exact recipe of the courtside mint julep survives (I included it in my book, Mint Juleps with Teddy Roosevelt: The Complete History of Presidential Drinking):

Ingredients:

  • 10 to 12 fresh mint leaves “muddled” (until it resembles paste) with a splash of water and a sugar cube
  • 2 to 3 oz rye whiskey
  • .25 oz brandy
  • 1-2 sprigs fresh mint as a garnish

First fill a bar glass* with the muddled mint, then fill the glass generously with finely crushed ice. Top off with the rye, brandy, and mint garnish.

*TR probably would not mind if you substituted the classic silver goblet here

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