It’s Derby Time, and so begins the annual tradition where the Mint Julep reigns supreme for about a week. Articles will be posted by the dozen; all lamenting the fact that the Juleps served at the Derby are too sweet. Juleps will be served at the Derby with an overabundance of sugar regardless.
So much has been written about the Mint Julep that it’s difficult to say much other than it’s an old drink, it should be served in a silver cup, and that it is always too sweet. That’s about the extent of most people’s knowledge about the cocktail. But I have some pretty personal feelings about the drink; I believe it is responsible for a long, long line of cocktails. Here’s the story.
So, just imagine you’re an early American settler. Buckskin cap. Righteous odor. You live in a small community, many of those people are farmers, and a few of those farmers are distillers. Whiskey is being passed around as a commodity; it’s literally being used to buy things. And we’re not talking about today’s smooth, drinkable, modern whiskey. This is firewater (No, not fireball; that’s a different abomination altogether).
So, you drink the firewater. But it’s not easy. So you cut it with a touch of cool water, to tame the alcohol. You hit it with a tiny splash of sugar, to make it go down a little easier. And you grab something that grows like a weed, say, fresh mint, to mask any unpleasant flavors. And boom, you’ve got yourself an early Mint Julep.
So people drink like this for a good 150 years, until a new, very popular product hits the market: bitters. Now if you live in New York City, or someplace where mint isn’t plentiful, you’ve got something else to mix with your whiskey and that splash of cool water and dash of sugar. And suddenly you’ve got a new drink on your hands, a Cock-tail, which would eventually become known as an Old Fashioned.
And this version is really popular, until another product hits the market in the United States and becomes quite popular: Sweet vermouth. So now you’ve got something to mix up with your whiskey and bitters, replacing the sugar. And this is a new drink known as a Manhattan.
But then Prohibition comes along and cuts off your whiskey supply, for the most part. And a spirit that’s cheap and easy to make pretty much anywhere supplants it: Gin. And now we’ve got a drink consisting of gin, bitters, and vermouth; the earliest prototype of the Martini.
So say what you will about the Mint Julep and its silver cups, ladies in big hats, or longstanding Kentucky tradition. I think the drink has an even more noble history. This is the great grandfather of cocktails. So you should stop bitching and respect your elders.
• 1 tsp. 2:1 simple syrup
• 10-12 mint leaves
• 2 oz. Bourbon whiskey
In the bottom of a silver Julep cup, combine simple syrup and mint leaves. Gently press mint leaves into sugar until the fragrance is just noticeable. Add Bourbon and stir to combine. Slowly fill glass with crushed ice, stirring continually. Garnish with a large bouquet of fresh mint.
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Jeffrey Morgenthaler is the bar manager at Pépé le Moko and Clyde Common, the acclaimed gastropub at the Ace Hotel in Portland, Oregon. He is also author of The Bar Book: Elements of Cocktail Technique.