You would think that National Mint Julep Day would be held at the same time as the Kentucky Derby, but it is not so. But, any day is a good day for this iconic American creation. It turns out that the Mint Julep is most likely the oldest cocktail served in the United States, going back to the original 13 colonies.
Author and cocktail historian David Wondrich recently published his findings in his revised and expanded version of Imbibe! Updated and Revised Edition: From Absinthe Cocktail to Whiskey Smash, a Salute in Stories and Drinks to “Professor” Jerry Thomas, Pioneer of the American Bar. Here’s a pertinent excerpt from a recent interview Dave had with Robert Simonson.
RS: There’s new material on drinks in the new book, particularly the history of the Julep, which you say is a much older drink than previously thought.
DW: It’s a much earlier drink. In 1770, in Virginia, there are two solid references to the julep being a recreational drink. That’s a big deal, I think. I had looked at the part on the julep in the original edition and I was shocked and disappointed. I wrote almost nothing about it. I wanted to kick myself, because that’s the most important drink.
RS: You call it the “first true American drink.”
DW: It’s a foundational drink. It’s how we started to be different. The mint julep is also the only drink that I’ve championed that hasn’t been revived yet.
RS: Really? People make nice mint juleps at many places.
DW: Some. Not so much. Nobody really specializes in them. People will make them if you ask.
RS: And it was a brandy drink originally?
DW: In the 1700s, it was a rum drink. The Revolutionary War years and a little after, a whiskey drink. Once the country got rich again and started making money again, it was a brandy drink, up until the Civil War.
RS: Can we say it was originally a Virginia drink?
DW: That seems to be the case. But I think it was [bartender Orsamus] Willard at the City Hotel in New York who popularized the iced version.
And here is Wondrich’s favorite (and authentic) version for you to try at home:
The Prescription Julep
1.5 ounces VSOP cognac or other good brandy
0.5 ounce rye whiskey
2 tsp sugar (to taste), dissolved in 1/2 ounce water
2 sprigs fresh mint, plus more for garnish
Place the sugar and water in a tall glass or julep cup and muddle until sugar is dissolved. Add mint leaves to the sugar syrup and gently press to release the flavorful oil (don’t get too aggressive: smashing up the mint releases bitterness in the leaves). Add the spirits and stir to combine. Fill glass with crushed ice and stir with bar spoon until the glass begins to frost, adding more crushed ice if needed. Garnish with a fresh sprig of mint; serve with a straw.