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The Magic and Mythology of the Mint Julep

From building bonds between lawmen and lawbreakers to curing babies, the Mint Julep's reputation precedes it. Robert Simonson offers an ode to the mythology of America's most storied drink.

It’s impossible to order a Mint Julep nonchalantly. Not even on Derby Day. You may not be wearing a white suit or sporting a Van Dyke; you may not be shaded by the wide brim of a straw hat; but you may as well be. The name of the drink itself is a kind of verbal flourish. “Martini” can sound like marching orders. It comes off the lips in clipped, staccato syllables. “Margarita” or “Daiquiri” or “Mojito” are simply Spanish words that salt English, a patchwork language that has borrowed words from foreign tongues for centuries. Mint Julep, though—it could be the name of a character in a Tennessee Williams play.

The drink—whiskey, sugar, tufts of sweet-smelling mint and mounds of crushed ices, all served a frost-covered silver chalice—is decadence itself, and the decadent don’t typically worry what other people think. The Mint Julep drinker lives in the moment. He sees no reason to rush; good things take a little time, as do good drinks. He also sees no reason to suffer unnecessarily. Why be hot when you can be cool? Why bear the bite of whiskey when you can smooth it out with sugar, ice and mint? Why exert yourself in tipping a glass back when a straw is available? Why not a little sweetness in this life?

It’s an indulgent perspective, but also, to a certain way of thinking, a sensible one. It is, thus, apt that the Mint Julep is the signature drink of the Kentucky Derby, one of the more hedonistic events on the athletic calendar: two minutes of competition surrounded by several days of partying. It’s the Mardi Gras of sporting events.

The Mint Julep is the staunchest survivor of one of America’s oldest drink genres, one that predates the Revolutionary War and, likely (sorry, Kentucky), the creation of bourbon. Virginians were compounding Julep-like refreshments with brandy as morning eye-openers in the mid-1750s. But, once upon a time, any spirit would do; the Julep, like its icy cousin the Cobbler, was versatile that way.

In his seminal cocktail manual, How to Mix Drinks, bartender Jerry Thomas enumerated several types of Julep, including the Pineapple Julep, which was once a hot 19th-century item. (If you want to try one, head to The Coachman in San Francisco.) Over the years, however, Kentucky and its native nectar became lord and protector of the drink. And no one’s complaining.

If the Julep can drive a wedge between barman and barfly, it can also build a bridge between lawman and law-breaker.

Certainly not Chris McMillan, a New Orleans bartender currently at Kingfish, and perhaps the most famous Julep builder in the union. He recites, when constructing the drink, an entire article by a Kentucky newspaperman named J. Soule Smith that appeared in the 1890s. “The zenith of man’s pleasure,” runs one section. “He who has not tasted one has lived in vain… the nectar of the Gods is tame beside it. It is the very drink of drinks… it is fragrant, cold and sweet. It is seductive. No maiden’s kiss is tenderer or more refreshing. No maiden’s touch can be more passionate. Sip it and dream… it is a dream itself.” 

The drink can also bring out the brave and the downright foolhardy in a man. While campaigning for President in 1860, Stephen Douglas once claimed that the Julep—the ownership of which Kentucky and Virginia have fought over for years—was invented in his native Illinois. And while speaking to Virginians in Virginia, no less.

But, then, politicians have a history of suicidal tendencies when contemplating their favorite drink. South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun dared to make Mint Juleps in a silver cup given to him by the state’s governor for his political enemies Henry Clay of Kentucky and Daniel Webster of Massachusetts, while fellow 19th-century Senator Joe Blackburn of Kentucky spent ten minutes in New York City’s Coates House explaining to New Yorkers why the Kentucky Mint Julep was superior to the item made under that name in Manhattan.

Aside from the perennial Virginia-Kentucky argument, the main thing Mint Julep people like to argue about is, of course, the proper way to make one. The handling of the mint, the size of the ice, straw or no straw—these are all points of honor. My preferred method—for which I advocate, but stop short of dueling over—begins with gently muddling a half dozen fresh mint leaves with a barspoon of simple syrup at the bottom of a silver cup. I then fill the cup halfway with crushed ice and two and a half ounces of bourbon (I like Elijah Craig 12 Year Old) and stir until the cup’s sides begin to frost. I add more ice and stir again, then top with a rounded mount of ice, a fulsome spring of mint and a metal straw.

My instructions probably would have pained Agosto Fort, a long-suffering New York barman profiled in a comic 1933 article in The New Yorker. Fort nearly suffered a nervous breakdown at the hands of various “Southern colonels” (from places like Cleveland and Bangor, Maine), who all insisted Fort was making his Mint Juleps incorrectly. “Formerly he greeted all with a simple heartiness of one who knows that every man is his brother and means him no harm,” wrote the author of the piece, “but now he looks upon everybody as a possible mint-julep [sic] expert.”

If the Julep can drive a wedge between barman and barfly, it can also build a bridge between lawman and lawbreaker. An 1893 story in the Brooklyn Eagle tells of Ned Marshall, a Kentuckian who became a prominent California lawyer. Marshall drank Juleps with the “hardest case in San Diego County,” simply because the thief was the only man in the area whose land sprouted wild mint.

But bonding disparate souls is but nothing to the Julep. Why, it can save lives, if only trusted to do so. In 1900, a Southern physician insisted a Brooklyn woman administer weak Mint Juleps to her puny newborn, who was suffering through a painful teething. The mother protested. Might the tot not develop a premature taste for liquor, his life forever ruined? Nonsense, insisted the doctor, who pressed his case until the parent acquiesced.

The baby improved.