The julep is one of those cocktails prone to the ripple effect. One customer orders it, and when the frosted tin arrives neighboring eyes grow wide with envy and admiration. Next thing you know, the whole damn bar is set to the sound of clanking tins and is fragrant with the smell of mint.
When done up properly, the Mint Julep can be a fussy drink—all crushed ice and fancy silver cup—which is exactly why it might seem surprising that it packs such a punch. Essentially sweetened bourbon over ice with some mint for aromatics, the drink is one of the more powerful cocktails to be associated with contemporary day drinking—the association, of course, owing much to the Kentucky Derby, where 120,000 juleps are said to be sold every year. Skip over the trappings though, and you’ll find an all-American drink with roots dating back to 18th century.
The exact origins and recipe have inspired countless dissertations, but, in short, it most likely originated in Virginia in the late 1700s when it was considered an aristocratic drink. (Who else could afford silver tins and a coveted block of ice used simply for crushing?) The drink spread throughout the South during the first half of the 19th century, eventually becoming the “Coca-Cola of its time,” as William Grimes calls it in his Straight Up or On the Rocks. Bourbon became the preferred spirit only after the Civil War, when the South was impoverished and, thanks to phylloxera, brandy had all but disappeared.
And though the mint version reigns supreme in the Bluegrass State, the julep itself has many iterations. Stop by Brooklyn oyster and absinthe bar Maison Premiere any day of the year and you’ll discover and entire menu section dedicated to drinks served in silver tins and garnished lavishly. Their pink-hued, marcona almond-topped Barber of Seville walks the line between tiki julep and Spanish swizzle with a cast of manzanilla sherry, Cappelletti, rye whiskey and orgeat.
The traditional Champagne Julep and Garden State Julep (which hails from a Louisville barkeep) both add wine to the mix—sparkling and rosé respectively—and maintain the tradition of muddled mint plus a newfangled bell and whistle or two. While at Prime Meats, Damon Boelte plays on a Georgian tradition of muddling peaches into his Honeysuckle Julep, but further riffs on the template by swapping in Old Tom Gin for whiskey and sweetening the drink with a combination of yellow Chartreuse and honey syrup.
But as in all things julep-related, simplicity often prevails. Louisville chef Edward Lee offers a minimal twist by infusing his simple syrup with jalapeño, turning the Derby classic into an icy-hot afternoon cooler.
Many will continue to argue about the julep’s origins, the validity of fanciful julep variations and the proper preparation of each and every iteration. Some say a julep tin is necessary. Others insist mint is imperative. Still others will decry anything but a whiskey base. But we are not so critical. As long as the ice is crushed, the glass is frosty and the drink is strong, we’ll call it a julep and we’ll drink it with delight.