What Makes a Julep Cocktail?
Being around since the 17th century, the straightforward and uncomplicated Mint Julep has taken various different forms in its long history. Jared Brown and Anistatia Miller explore the many faces of this refreshing Kentucky Derby staple
This is about as simple as it gets: spirits, sweetening, crushed ice, mint. Mint Juleps are known famously as the iconic toast of the Kentucky Derby. But there’s more to this ultimate thirst quencher than meets the eye.
The word ‘julep’ is a Provencal identifier for a variety of sweetened medical mixtures that contain no solids and were commonly prescribed for digestion. In William Lewis’ 1753 edition of The New English Dispensatory, two Stomach Julep recipes shared more in common with molecular mixology that you would perhaps expect.
The first consists of three compounds: grain spirit rectified with peppermint, distilled peppermint water and a saffron syrup made by macerating saffron threads in sherry, filtering it, and then sweetening it. The second example combines tincture of mint, distilled cardamom water and simple syrup.
Suck on this
Legends about the Mint Julep (aka Brandy Julep) abound. It was considered to be an excellent preventative against malaria, imbibed by French colonists who in the 1660s had settled in the swampy regions of New France –Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana.
Our favourite tale narrates an incident that happened to George Rogers Clark as he led the Kentucky militia in 1778 to capture Kaskaskia, Illinois, in an effort to weaken British influence in the Northwest Territory. Clark called out: ‘Surrender you suckers, you!’ The French settlers were allegedly sipping Brandy Juleps through straws made from rye stalks on their verandas when Clark and his men arrived. This anecdote was cited in 1860 by Senator Stephen A Douglas as the reason the Illinois became affectionately known as the ‘Sucker State’.
Was the Mint Julep an American invention, a French import, or something else? Captain Frederick Maryatt, in his 1839 Diary in America Series II, Volume I, defended its British origins.
‘The Virginians claim the merit of having invented this superb compound, but I must dispute it for my own country, although it has been forgotten of late. In the times of Charles I and II it must have been known, for Milton expressly refers to it in his Comus: “Behold the cordial julep – here…” If that don’t mean mint-julep, I don’t know the English language.’
Rum, brandy, wine, whiskey, it made no difference what spirit was involved. When the temperature rose, and the humidity thickened, Juleps were the quaff of choice well into the late 1800s when Harry Johnson recorded his Mint Julep formula made with brand-specific Martell brandy and decorated with fruits of the season. (It was rare to use spirit brands in recipes in those days). Even his Champagne Julep called for a particular brand of bubbly.
Why would he be so pernickety? Well, there’s not much to cover up poorly selected spirit or wine in a recipe that contains nothing more than fresh mint and something sweet. If anything, flaws are more evident in a simple classic.
Simplicity does inspire creativity in these craft cocktail times. A fine example is put forth by Tony Conigliaro, whose Japanese Julep marries the classic julep execution of spirits, fresh botanical, sweetness, and crushed ice with the delicacy of Asian ingredients.
Is there a better match to a barbecued steak than a Tomatini? There are so many variations on this simple serve that we need more than two hands to count. Yet the subtle balance achieved by Jimmy Barrat, bar development manager for Zuma Middle East, comes from not charging it with too many flavours beyond the essential tomatoes and lemon. Barrat muddles a fresh, chopped cherry tomato into a shaker, then shakes 60ml vodka, 15ml white balsamic vinegar, 15ml fresh lemon juice, 10ml sugar syrup, and a pinch of black pepper. Strained into a chilled cocktail glass with a half rim of cracked black pepper and garnished with a cherry tomato, you have an elegant and light summer sip.
From Harry Johnson’s Bartender’s Manual, 1900
Glass: Large fancy bar glass
Garnish: Mint leaves, berries, pineapple and orange
Method: Dissolve mint with sugar and water, remove mint and add brandy. Fill glass with fine-shaved ice, stir and garnish. Dash with Jamaica rum, sprinkle with sugar.
1 small tbsp of sugar
½ wine glass of water or selters
3 or 4 sprigs of fresh mint
1½ wine glass brandy (Martell)
1 dash Jamaica rum
From Harry Johnson’s Bartender’s Manual, 1900
Glass: Fancy Julep glass
Garnish: Slices of oranges, pineapple and a few strawberries
Method: Place sugar and mint in glass, then pour champagne slowly while adding garnish.
1 medium-sized lump of loaf sugar
1 sprig of fresh mint
by Tony Conigliaro
Glass: Julep tin
Garnish: Shiso sprig
Method: Muddle shiso leaves, soju and simple syrup in Julep tin. Add whisky and crushed ice and swizzle. Top with crushed ice and four dashes of Angostura Bitters.
60ml Yamazaki 12yo
30ml Kuramoto no Umeshu (plum) Soju
10-15 shiso leaves
1 dash simple syrup
This article was updated from one that was originally published in imbibe live magazine on October 30, 2015
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