Like so many cocktails, the humble Mint Julep’s origins are the subject of heated debate. Today it is closely identified with America’s Deep South, famously served at the Kentucky Derby. However, the name derives from the Arabic word 'julab', meaning rosewater, and the first known written reference to a cocktail-style Julep was by a Virginia gentleman in 1787. At that time it could be made with rum, brandy or whiskey, but by 1900 whiskey had become the preferred base spirit. Indeed, in his 1862 The Bartender’s Guide: How to Mix Drinks, Jerry Thomas calls for cognac, a dash of Jamaican rum and a garnish of berries and orange slices. He also lists a Julep variation made with gin and one calling for ripe pineapple as well as the now ubiquitous whiskey version.
Common perceived wisdom has it that the Julep originated in Persia, or thereabouts, and it travelled to Europe (some say Southern France) where the rose petals were substituted for indigenous mint. The drink is then believed to have crossed the Atlantic where cognac was replaced with peach brandy and then whiskey, the Mint Julep we recognise today.
The remodelled U.S. style mint julep reached Britain in 1837, thanks to the novelist Captain Frederick Marryat, who complained of being woken at 7am by a slave brandishing a Julep. He popularised the drink through his descriptions of American Fourth of July celebrations and praise such as the following:
“I must descant a little upon the mint julep, as it is, with the thermometer at 100˚, one of the most delightful and insinuating potations that was ever invented, and may be drunk with equal satisfaction when the thermometer is as low as 70˚... As the ice melts, you drink. I once overheard two ladies in the room next to me, and one of them said, ‘Well, if I have a weakness for any one thing, it is for a ‘mint julep!’ - a very amiable weakness, and proving her good sense and taste. They are, in fact, like the American ladies, irresistible.”
When making a Mint Julep it is important to only bruise the mint as crushing the leaves releases the bitter, inner juices. Also be sure to discard the stems, which are also bitter.
It is imperative that the drink is served ice cold. Cocktail etiquette dictates that the shaker containing the mint and other ingredients should be placed in a refrigerator with the serving vessel (preferably made of metal rather than glass) for at least two hours prior to adding ice, shaking and serving.
Variations on the Mint Julep include substituting the bourbon for rye whiskey, rum, gin, brandy, calvados or applejack brandy. Another variation calls for half a shot of aged rum to be floated on top of the bourbon-based julep.