Mint Julep (1917) ★★★★★

Today, Mint juleps are very closely associated with the Kentucky Derby, which runs on the first Saturday in May. This year, 2013, the event falls on May 4th.

As with nearly any recipe, it is difficult to pin an exact date when the mint julep was created. Currently, the first known mention of the drink is in the 1803 book Travels of Four Years and a Half in the United States of America by John Davis. The reference appears in a passage called "Story of Dick the Negro" and states, "This young chap, Sir, (here Dick winked his left eye,) was a trimmer. The first thing he did on getting out of bed was to call for a Julep;* and I honestly date my own love of whiskey, from mixing and tasting my young master's Juleps." The footnote reads, "A dram of spirituous liquor that has mint steeped in it, taken  by Virginians of a morning."  In Kentucky, silver julep cups were being awarded as fair prizes as early as 1816.

The origins of the term "julep" can be traced to a Middle Eastern beverage of rose petals muddled in water, called a "gulab" or "julab." "Julep" is a French translation. The Oxford English Dictionary cites the earliest use of the word as around 1400, when it was used to describe a syrup used to administer medicine. This method of improving the flavour of water eventually made its way to the Americas, and apparently evolved along the way. One theory is that the mint julep was created in order to mask the flavour of poorly made whiskey - similar to the original use of a medicinal julep.

Naturally, such a popular beverage did not arise without argument. The main issue is whether to crush the mint or not. This debate dates back to the earliest incarnations of the drink in the nineteenth century. Furthermore, there is a bit of a rivalry between Kentucky and Virginia, as to who can claim ownership of the beverage.
LIFE, May 1937
The association of the drink with the Kentucky Derby began in 1875, with the inception of the racetrack. It was first advertised as the official Derby drink at Churchill Downs in 1938. An 1937 edition of LIFE magazine included details of Julian P. Van Winkles' "mint julep party" held during that years Kentucky Derby. Apparently the Van Winkle recipe for mint juleps used only 17 year old bourbon. The recipe LIFE provided was: "put sugar and bruised mint at the bottom of the silver cup, pack in finely-cracked ice to induce proper frosting, stick mint sprigs in after two ounces of Bourbon have been poured." Today hundreds of thousands of juleps are served at the Derby and collectible cups have been soldd since 1938.

While mint juleps are traditionally alcoholic, this recipe is safe for the whole family! It may not be authentic, but it hits the spot when you can't or don't drink alcohol. It is possible that this unusual 1917 recipe was a result of the prohibition movement. Temperance, or abstinence from drinking alcohol, had gained momentum during the nineteenth century, and  by the early twentieth century laws were being passed which prohibited the sale of alcohol, partially in order to save resources for World War One. The Eighteenth Amendment in the United States took effect in 1920 and prohibited the sale, transport, and production of alcohol. (Fun fact: here in Ontario we can only buy alcohol from LCBO [Liquor Control Board of Ontario] stores, a remnant method of control in the post-prohibition era.)
LIFE, August 1941
For those wishing to imbibe in the traditional version, here is an early printing of the recipe, from 1845. It was published in Eliza Acton's Modern Cookery for Private Families in Britain:

Mint Julep, An American Receipt.
Strip the tender leaves of mint into a tumbler, and add to them as much wine brandy, or any other spirit, as you wish to take. Put some pounded ice into a second tumbler; pour this on the mint and brandy, and continue to pour the mixture from one tumbler to the other until the whole is sufficently impregnated with the flavour of the mint, which is extracted by the particles of the ice coming into brisk contact when changed from one vessle to the other. Now place the glass in a larger one, containing pounded ice: on taking it out of which it will be covered with frost-work.' Obs.--We apprehend that this preparation is, like most other iced American beverages, to be imbibed through a reed: the recei, which was contributed by an American gentleman, is somewhat vague.
Alternatively, you could try Henry Watterson's recipe: "Pluck the mint gently from its bed, just as the dew of the evening is about to form upon it. Select the choicer sprigs only, but do not rinse them. Prepare the 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."

Original Recipe:

25.—MINT JULEP (Ginger Ale)

¾ cup sugar4 sprigs mint
1 cup water1 pint ginger ale
Juice of 3 lemons
Boil sugar and water ten minutes, and cool; add strained lemon juice, mint leaves bruised, and ginger ale; half fill glasses with crushed ice, add julep, and garnish with a sprig of mint.

The Verdict:
This drink basically tastes like sweet, lemony mint tea. I enjoyed it. The ginger ale wasn't really tasteable, but it gave a nice fizz. It was definitely refreshing. The drink alone is quite sweet, so it definitely needs the ice (or even just water if need be) to dilute it a bit. While it was definitely a delicious recipe, I'm not sure it actually resembles a real mint julep at all.

Modernized Recipe:
(Adapted from Better Meals for Less Money)

3/4 cup SUGAR
1 cup WATER
Juice of 3 LEMONS, strained
4 sprigs MINT, plus more for garnishing
1 pint (2 cups) GINGER ALE

1. In a small saucepan, boil the sugar and water for 10 minutes. Let cool.
2. Add the lemon juice to the cooled sugar syrup. Add the mint leaves, and gently bruise them by pressing on them with the back of a spoon (or use a muddler). Add the ginger ale.*
3. Fill glasses with crushed ice, add the julep, and garnish with a sprig of mint.

* Although the recipe didn't mention this, I strained the syrup before adding the ginger ale. I used frozen mint leaves (a mistake, I might add), so they were all shriveled and nasty and I didn't want them in my cup.

Also note, I've read a recipe in which the mint leaves are muddled in hot water, in order to bring out the flavour. It might be worth it to add them to the hot syrup to mimic this method.


Davis, John. Travels of Four Years and a Half in the United States of America during 1798, 1799, 1800, 1801, and 1802. Bristol: R. Edwards, 1803. Print.

Egerton, John. Southern Food: At Home, on the Road, in History. North Carolina: University of North Carolina, 1993. Print.

Four Roses. "This Is a Lucky Year for Julep Lovers!" LIFE 25 Aug. 1941: 34. Google Books. Web. 30 Apr. 2013. <>.

"Life Goes to a Party." LIFE 24 May 1937: 90-92. Google Books. Web. 30 Apr. 2013. <>.

"Mint Julep." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 23 Apr. 2013. Web. 30 Apr. 2013. <>.

Nickell, Joe. The Kentucky Mint Julep. Lexington, KY: University of Kentucky, 2003. Print.

Olver, Lynne. "Mint Julep." The Food Timeline. N.p., 2000. Web. 30 Apr. 2013. <>.

Anje graduated with a Honours Bachelors degree in History with a minor in Museum Studies. She currently lives and works in Japan's least populous prefecture as an assistant English teacher.