In Kentucky, few things are as sacred as the Mint Julep.
“Let no vandal pollute your palate with any base imitation of this glorious vintage. Whiskey, sugar, mint and water are the sole constituents,” reads an 1899 column in The Louisville Times. Additions beyond that? “These are but inventions of the devil.”
Though you’d never know it, given the Bluegrass State’s devotion to the classic build, the Mint Julep once enjoyed a much less stringent existence. Medicinal in its earliest iterations, the recreational julep was first recorded in the late 1700s, made interchangeably with rye, rum or brandy, but no mint. An 1803 travelogue by English writer John Davis first notes the addition of the herb (“a dram of spirituous liquor that has mint steeped in it”) but ascribes the formula to Virginia, not Kentucky. In another blow to purists, a version printed in a 1928 manual from Canada’s Gooderham & Worts distillery suggests adorning a Mint Julep with “slices of orange, pineapple, lemon, and cherries on top.”
History is rich with these challenges to Derby Day dogma, and they’re not confined to North America. The julep that caught the eye of Philadelphia bartender Resa Mueller hails from the Philippines, some 8,400 miles from Churchill Downs.
While developing ideas for the pop-ups that eventually evolved into LALO, the Filipino restaurant she and her partners opened in Old City last year, Mueller—herself of Filipino descent—researched regional drinking habits during the archipelago’s U.S. colonial period, from 1898 to 1946. “I wanted to see what the idea of a cocktail was in the Philippines at that time,” she says, hopeful that native ingredients had found their way behind the bar during that time. “That’s when I found Charles and all of his ridiculous travels.”
The Charles in question is Charles H. Baker, the puckish American writer whose 1946 Gentleman’s Companion provides some of the only insights into global drinking trends of the era. “A julep is international and has been international for years,” he declares in a section featuring eight variations. There’s one in particular that earns his heartiest praise. “The best julep of all,” he proclaims, is the one he drank at The Manila Hotel in 1926.
Opened in 1912 and still in operation today, the hotel was commissioned and conceived by Americans, a monument to U.S. influence in the Philippines. In the early days, it was managed by Monk Antrim, an Illinois native whose eponymous drink graces the pages of Baker’s compendium. Antrim is also credited with Baker’s beloved Manila Hotel Mint Julep No. 1: “good old bourbon,” Guyanese or Barbados rum and sugar over crushed ice, decorated with an elaborate bouquet of fresh mint, cherries and Pasig River Valley pineapple.
With no indigenous elements beyond the fruit, the cocktail wasn’t exactly what Mueller was searching for, but it did evoke a particular time and place. It made sense that Antrim, that rare American barman unburdened by Prohibition, would relish using spirits outlawed back home. But beyond that, the drink appealed to Mueller on its own merits. “I love split-basing cocktails, especially whiskey-rum splits,” she says. “You just get so much flavor and texture when you do that. And I also love ridiculous garnishes.”
Unlike so many historic recipes that need extensive tinkering to align with modern tastes, Mueller didn’t find much fault in the original build. “It seemed perfectly good as written, but I knew I could also make it something I liked, using products I like,” she says.
Her biggest departure is in the overall volume of the drink. Where Antrim requires nearly four ounces of alcohol, Mueller cuts this quotient in half without compromising any personality. Replacing the heavy pour of bourbon with a smaller measure of Old Grand-Dad Bonded preserves “that big, bold, boozy feel,” while still leaving room to play with other flavors. To that end, she adds equal parts Plantation Stiggins’ Fancy Pineapple Rum, distilled with the bark and steeped with the flesh of Queen Victoria pineapples; and El Dorado 5-Year, a nod to Antrim’s original use of Guyanese demerara rum.
Where method is concerned, Mueller ignores directions to discard the muddled mint, preferring to leave it in the glass to mellow out those final few sips. When it comes to the gratuitous garnish, though, she hasn’t changed a thing. “There’s nothing about the Manila Hotel Julep that points specifically to the Philippines, but it still has that sense of purity,” she says. “The first time I saw it, I thought, ‘That sounds delicious. I want to have seven of them.’”