History of the Julep, Mint or Otherwise, Part Two

See Part One: “The Kentucky Derby Sine Quo Non: The Mint Julep
with the BEST Mint Julep recipe!

The Mint Julep today may be the official drink of Churchill Downs and of the Kentucky Derby, but the Julep itself has a long history as a consumable liquid, and its consumption was not always a pleasurable experience. Going back hundreds of years, as far back as the time of Rhazes (actually Abu Bakr Mohammad Ibn Zakariya al-Razi) the leading scholar of the early Islamic world, the Julep was a medicinal concoction, actually a sugary liquid, in those days usually water containing macerated violets and sugar, into which medicine was added to makes its taste palatable.

Over the next several centuries, there are numerous historical references to the Julep, to the “jewlip” and to the “syrupe” concoction used by medical practitioners across the known world. In the mid to late 18th century, it was written that surgeons were then prescribing the “Musk Julep” and Juleps compounded with the likes of egg yolks, “Chymical Oil” and Wormweed” to their patients.

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But it was not too many years thereafter, in the 1790s, that references have been found to the preparation of Juleps prepared for their enjoyment, first called the “Cordial Julep”. In America, around this time references were also found to drinks made of rum, water and sugar, previously considered “Slings”, instead referenced as “Juleps”. In fact, the first such references to a tasty, alcoholic beverage called a Julep were to those made with rum. Note, however, that medicinal Juleps did sometimes contain alcohol as far back as in the 1600s. Those were still medicinal remedies and other ingredients left them unpalatable at best, and with availability generally limited to the orders of physicians.

In the early 1800s, as more and more people became aware of the use of alcohol in medicine, its usage began spreading among others whose medical need was certainly questionable. Remember that traditionally a cocktail could only be considered a true cocktail if it contained bitters, and the consumption of a morning Julep for non-medicinal purposes became known as “taking one’s bitters”.

In the early 1800s as the consumption of the Julep as a beverage gained popularity, confusion as to the drink’s true nature waned, and the watery, sugary concoction found its place in society as a cocktail and known by the name “Julep. Recipes began to vary, and around the same time the first known addition of mint leaves to the Julep was seen.

Despite it current popularity in and connection to the American south, the Julep found wide popularity across the US, and around the world. In fact, chroniclers have reported that from the early 19th century until the Civil War the Julep was in fact the most popular drink in the US. The most popular bars in cites including New York and Chicago became famous for their versions of the Mint Julep.

The Julep in general remained primarily a drink made with the likes of brandy, and sometime rum, through the waning days of its immense popularity, which lasted into the early 1900s. Perhaps the wide variations and frequent additions of fancy fruits as garnishes led to its demise across so much of the country, as Julep fanciers could never be certain just what they were getting when ordering the drink.

One has to remember that until pioneers in the mixology field, most notably America’s preeminent bartender, Jerry Thomas, came around in the late 1700s and early 1800s,

alcoholic drinks were basically punches, served in large bowls, divided up between patrons. Pioneering bartenders such as Davis devised revolutionary individual mixed drinks, combining spirits, syrups, sugars, bitters, and ice, served in individual glasses to thirsty customers, one at a time. So, of course, it was Davis in the 1830s, who developed pre-eminent Julep recipes. And those early recipes for Juleps were for Gin Juleps, the Georgia Julep (with the inclusion of Peach Brandy) but most pre-eminently, the Brandy Julep. Thomas’ Brandy Julep became the country’s standard throughout the 19th century, but with bartenders across the land adding their own signature touches, many of which Thomas had disdained in creating the standard recipe.

The standard Julep recipe of the time included mint sprigs, white “pulverized” sugar, 2-1/2 tablespoons of water, 3-oz of brandy, shaved ice, fruit garnish, and ended with a splash on top of Jamaica Rum. To Thomas, the fruit and the rum were specifically omitted, and he also removed the “pressed” mint sprigs to serve the drink with fresh springs. He also disdained stirring his creation, choosing instead to shake between two glasses, a technique that he pioneered. He did include a slice of lemon, and also suggested wiping the rim of the serving glass with a slice of fresh cut pineapple

The popularity of the Julep survived nationally until World War I, but thereafter it lost its momentum. It’s preeminence began a comeback in the South when it began its formal association with the Kentucky Derby and its promotion at Churchill Downs in 1938. Today, 120,000 Mint Juleps are served each Derby weekend at Churchill Downs.and countless millions more made across the county. But for the perfect Julep, you need the right recipe and you have to use the correct glass!


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