The lore and lure of the Southern-style mint julep


Pining for the regularity of traditional seasons, I find my mind turning to one of the greatest hot-weather cocktails of all time: the Southern-style mint julep.

Little more than a concoction of whiskey, mint, ice, sugar and water, this mix becomes an enchanting, seductive ambrosia when mixed right: The tang of the mint perfectly balances out the sweetness of the bourbon, and the drink maintains a cool, iced, sweet and refreshing zing from start to finish.

I caught up with maven of mixology Jim Hewes, the barman at the Round Robin Bar of the historic Willard InterContinental Hotel — the place where this cocktail was introduced to Washington.

Hewes is not only one of the best bartenders in the nation’s capital, but he is also very knowledgeable in cocktail lore. Over a Southern-style mint julep, Hewes helped flesh out some of the background of the drink.

The julep is thought to date back to some ancient unrecorded point in time as a reference to potable sweetened or flavored water. The word is derived from the Arabic “julab,” which comes from the Persian term “gulab” with “gul” meaning rose and “ab” meaning water. There are also 15th-century references to juleps in the poetry of John Milton.

It is likely that the American mint julep originated in Virginia. It probably gained early prominence being made with rye whiskey, which was the most widely available distilled spirit of the time, and posterity still demands rye for a Maryland-style mint julep, although no one seems to drink this variety anymore.

Before long, the drink became a favorite of the well-heeled of the South, given that ice was hard to come by until the mid-19th century. By the 1830s it was often made with cognac or some other quality brandy by those who could afford the added extravagance.

The first clear recipe dates to 1839 and calls for “equal portions of peach and common brandy,” and comes from Capt. Frederick Marryat, an Englishman chronicling his travels through the United States. A few years after this publication, however, Marryat found his way to the original Willard Hotel, where he was to receive an education in the mint julep from Sen. Henry Clay of Kentucky.

The Virginia-born Clay had represented Kentucky for close to 50 years already. As the thought of the rum or brandy mint julep was too much for Clay, he showed Marryat the errors of his ways, which helped spread the popularity of the bourbon mint julep. The recipe Clay left for posterity is the closest thing to an “official” Southern-style mint julep recipe that exists today. With minor adjustment, it’s the official house drink of the Willard’s Round Robin Bar.

Here is Hewes’ recipe:

Place eight to 10 red-stemmed mint leaves, one teaspoon of granulated sugar and an ounce of bourbon in the bottom of a collins, a julep or a tall bar glass. Lightly muddle this using the heel of a butter knife until it forms a tea. Fill the glass halfway with finely crushed or cracked ice, and then vigorously stir using the business end of the butter knife. Add another heaping of the ice, keeping it tightly packed almost like a snow cone. Pour in equal measures of bourbon and sparkling branch water (like San Pellegrino). Garnish with a fresh sprig of mint to which the stem has been bruised (to release a bit more of that mint flavor), add a twist of lemon peel, and dust the top with granulated sugar. Serve with two short stirrer straws so that you have to put your nose right into the bouquet to sip it. L’chaim!

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