With its spirit-forward template and characteristic jolt of mint, the smash has much in common with its more famous relative, the Mint Julep, but comes without the associated frippery (tin cups, Derby hats, et al.). Once described by Jerry Thomas as the “julep on a small plan,” this historic drink has always exhibited a preference for pragmatism over pomp.
First appearing in the 1830s, the smash (a mixture of spirit, sugar, water and mint, served over crushed ice), peaked in popularity between the 1840s and 1860s as a variation on the julep, its name mirroring its more laid-back character. Whereas the word “julep” claims a millennia-long lineage, “smash” is derived from the mundane action of muddling or shaking the mint in preparation of this wholly utilitarian take—fittingly served in a small, unembellished glass, traditionally without a straw.
Exactly how the two drinks differ, at least in their early years, is subject to debate. Per Jerry Thomas’s original recipes, they were largely identical, save for size, the julep being the larger of the two. But in Modern American Drinks, published in 1895, George Kappeler suggests that the difference lies in how exactly the mint is incorporated—either stirred into the drink, as is the case with his julep, or muddled, in that of his smash.
The distinction between the two today, given the versions with which we are most familiar, is the smash’s inclusion of citrus—a relatively recent addition credited to Dale DeGroff. “I was a little bored of mint juleps,” he writes in The Essential Cocktail: The Art of Mixing Drinks, “so I mashed up some lemon with the mint.” Now considered a common base ingredient, the citrus—which is notably muddled into the drink alongside the mint—has become part of the smash’s 20th-century calling card, further differentiating the category.
As would be expected, there are plenty of bartenders taking it all a step further, mixing in seasonal fruit, herbs and liqueurs in an effort to built upon this characteristically simple template. Here, two classic smashes and their modern interpretations.
The most popular example of the category, the Whiskey Smash is an easy drink to riff upon with just a few simple additions, such as bitter amaro and rich, nutty walnut oil (as is the case in the Averna Smash) or sweetened ginger juice, which is lengthened with soda water in the Poppa’s Pride.
The original and most popular variant of the smash throughout its heyday was the Brandy Smash, though gin was often subbed in as a preferred spirit. Today, bartenders are pushing those boundaries further, oftentimes calling on tequila: For his Bruja Smash, Andrew Bohrer pairs the spirit with Strega and raspberries for a savory-fruity riff, while Bobby Heugel calls on agave and spicy habanero tincture for a drink that blends the smash’s no-frills template with the flavors of a classic Margarita.