The notion originated with Daisy’s suggestion that we hire five bathrooms and take cold baths, and then assumed more tangible form as ‘a place to have a mint julep’.-The Great Gatsby, F. Scott. Fitzgerald
Post first published 2013. Updated Jan 2021.
It’s possible you were first introduced to the mint julep through The Great Gatsby. For my generation, this frosty drink of mint, sugar and whiskey seems the epitome of the 1920s. But the julep has a history spanning several centuries, before fully embedding itself in America’s South.
The word julep has been borrowed and repurposed several times over, from Arabic to Old French over several hundred years. Back in 1789, the word julep is mentioned in William Buchan’s Domestic Medicine, and described as a sugar and water drink to mix with medicines for consumption.
75 years later, in Jerry Thomas’s Bartender Guide, the mint julep is taking shape. He provides recipes for not one, but five, versions of julep. Furthermore, we see the mint julep recipe with its original ingredient of brandy, as well as peaches, and the cup edge rubbed with pineapple. Under the whiskey julep, it is made clear to omit all fruits and berries. Around the same time, the rigours of what makes an ‘authentic’ Southern mint julep are firmly taking shape. Joshua Soule Smith waxed lyrical about the beverage, and in his poem, The Mint Julep, defines how best to make the cocktail.
How shall it be? Take from the cold spring some water, pure as angels are; mix it with sugar till it seems like oil. Then take a glass and crush your mint within it with a spoon – crush it around the borders of the glass and leave no place untouched. Then throw the mint away – it is the sacrifice. Fill with cracked ice the glass; pour in the quantity of Bourbon which you want. It trickles slowly through the ice. Let it have time to cool, then pour your sugared water over it. No spoon is needed; no stirring allowed- just let it stand a moment. Then around the brim place sprigs of mint, so that the one who drinks may find the taste and odor at one draft.Then when it is made, sip it slowly.
Tips for serving mint julep at your Great Gatsby party
- Make the mixing of mint juleps the centre of attention. Since these drinks can’t be made in advance, lay out your ingredients at the bar so you have them on hand.
- The day before, premake the sugar mixture, and make sure you have plenty of finely crushed ice.
- The silver mint julep cup is the iconic glass to serve the cocktail in. As the cocktail sits in the glass, it will cause the silver to become frosty on the outside.
Done right, the mint julep is cooling, refreshing, and perfect for summer days. Drinking a mint julep made from scratch is the only way (politely decline all premixed versions). As Joshua Soule Smith declares, “Who has not tasted one has lived in vain.”
- Thomas, Jerry. How to Mix Drinks; The Bon-vivant’s Companion, 1862
- Smith, Andrew. Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink, Oxford University Press, 2007
- Soule Smith, Joshua. The Mint Julep. retrieved Jan 26 2021. https://www.facebook.com/LexingtonBourbonSociety/posts/the-mint-julep-by-joshua-soule-smiththen-comes-the-zenith-of-mans-pleasure-then-/950230761817300/
- Ayto, John. The Diner’s Dictionary, Oxford University Press, 1993.
- Buchan, William. Domestic medicine or the family physician, 1769