Springtime in Kentucky means mint juleps. People either love them or hate them. I fall more into the latter category myself. I have had a few good mint juleps, but only rarely. Molly Wellmann made me a very good mint julep once. I find most of them are too sweet and too minty – almost like drinking mint mouthwash. Even so, I respect the heritage of the drink.

According to the book The Kentucky Mint Julep by Colonel Joe Nickell, in 1755, Dr. Samuel Johnson defined a julap{sic} as “extemporaneous form of medicine, made of simple and compound water sweetened, serving as a vehicle to other forms not so convenient to take alone”. In other words, a way to sweeten medicine. Whiskey was considered a medicine in his day. In frontier Kentucky, whiskey was drunk to cure all sorts of ills, including sore muscles from the previous day’s work. People would sweeten their early morning “eye opener” with sugar and mint. In other words, the mint julep was often a breakfast drink. In 1803, Englishman John Davis in his book Travels of Four Years and a Half in the United States, wrote that a “dram of spirituous liquor that has mint in it, taken by Virginians in the morning”, was describing this practice. 

In the “love” the julep category, author Charles H. Baker, Jr., in his book The Gentleman’s Companion, Vol.II, Exotic Drink Book, spends three pages discussing the lore of the mint julep. He then offers this recipe for making a good mint julep:

  1. Chill glasses, whether silver or not.
  2. Use glasses of sixteen ounce capacity.
  3. Use two and one half jiggers of likker for sixteen ounce glass, two for fourteen ounce.
  4. Use red-stemmed mint, simply because red-stemmed mint is more pleasantly aromatic. Use fresh mint, and cut stems short just before putting in as final garnish – to make them bleed.
  5. Don’t bruise that first installment of tender mint leaves more than very slightly. The inner leaf juices are bitter and cannot have profitable flavor. Bruise one between the teeth, then chew it up to find out.
  6. Don’t expect to get a whacking good julep out of six month old “Bourbon” or “Rye”. We can’t.
  7. Don’t use coarse ice, use finely cracked ice – very fine.
  8. Don’t over garnish with sliced orange and random fruits. With juleps, and in fact with any drink of delicate quality in its own right, don’t add anything with a different strong scent – orange, lemon and certain other fruits have a very potent aroma… The aroma of a Bourbon julep should be Bourbon and mint – not Bourbon, mint and a fruit store. Garnish simply without trying to gild the lily. A julep is more than a mere chilled liquid; it is a tradition to be respected. The mint itself is a delight to the eye, just as we admire parsley against a fine red snapper, or permit feminine associates the use of red nail polish, or grace a mother’s table with flowers. So let the julep feast the eye and nostril properly – not supplying unending, edible diversions from the main theme. We don’t need to eat all of the trimmings, after all – but we always do!… That is why ripe pineapple is so beneficial – and eaten after the julep is gone, the marinated fruit is delicious.
  9. Take care that all of the sugar is worked into syrup before it and liquor is put in. Reason: If sugar is left in granular form, when chilled the dissolving process is radically slowed down. Especially when sipping through a straw you will suddenly find yourself inhaling furiously saccharine slug which will ruin the memory of the lovely drink just preceding this disastrous end… This is why we personally use gomme, or bar, syrup for all juleps. Mint leaves muddle as well in it as they do on sugar; the muddled bits of mint stick to the glass’ inner walls even better with the sugar-water mix. One final stir before the garnish goes in distributes this quickly dissolved syrup evenly through the entire drink.

In the “hate” category, there is former Courier-Journal editor, Henry Watterson. His recipe for a julep is as follows:

Pluck the mint gently from its bed, just as the dew of evening is about to form on it. Select the choice sprigs only, but do not rinse them. Prepare a simple syrup and measure out a half-tumbler of whiskey. Pour the whiskey into a well-frosted silver cup, throw the other ingredients away, and drink the whiskey.

For the recipe used by Molly Wellmann, who made me a decent mint julep, here is the recipe from her book, Handcrafted Cocktails:

3 ounces Bourbon, ½ ounce mint simple syrup, 1 large mint sprig, 1 ounce dark rum. Pack a julep cup or highball glass with as much crushed ice as possible. In a separate glass, stir together the Bourbon and mint syrup. Make a hole in the ice and pour the Bourbon mixture in. Top off with the rum and garnish with the mint sprig. Serve with a drinking straw.

Photos Courtesy of Rosemary Miller