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16 Astonishing Facts About Mint Julep

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The mint julep is an iconic Southern cocktail with a rich history dating back over 200 years. This refreshing drink made with bourbon, sugar, mint, and ice is a staple at the Kentucky Derby and conjures images of Southern hospitality.

While the mint julep may seem simple, its origins and impact on culture are quite fascinating. Here are 16 astonishing facts you likely never knew about this beloved cocktail:

Introduction

The mint julep has come a long way from its humble medicinal beginnings to being the signature sip of the Kentucky Derby. This cocktail encapsulates the hospitality and charm of the American South.

Behind its sweet exterior lies a complex history filled with presidential drinking buddies, silver cup traditions, and a dash of controversy over its roots. The popularity of the mint julep has waxed and waned over time, but it always makes a comeback thanks to its refreshing flavor profile.

Read on to uncover 16 fascinating nuggets of mint julep history. You’ll gain cocktail conversation fodder and a new appreciation for this iconic drink.

16 Astonishing Facts About Mint Julep

1. The Mint Julep Originated in the Middle East

The earliest known version of the mint julep dates back over 1,000 years to Persia. Rosewater drinks called gulab were prescribed as medicine and offered to royalty to revive the spirits. As these drinks spread through trade routes to the Mediterranean, mint became the herb of choice instead of rose petals.

2. The Name Comes From Ancient Arabic

The word “julep” comes from the ancient Arabic julab, meaning “rose water.” As the drink traveled around the world over centuries, the name stuck even as the ingredients changed.

3. The Mint Julep Made Its Way to America as Medicine

In the late 1700s, the mint julep came to America as a medicinal drink. Early recipes used rum or brandy, along with honey, mint, and water to settle upset stomachs. The high-proof liquor packed a punch even when mixed as a “health tonic.”

4. The First Printed Mention Calls It a Morning Cocktail

The first published mention of the mint julep in 1803 refers to it as “a dram of spirituous liquor that has mint steeped in it, taken by Virginians of a morning.” So right from the beginning, the julep was served as a little early morning pick-me-up.

5. Senator Henry Clay Helped Popularize It in Washington, D.C.

Kentucky Senator Henry Clay introduced the mint julep to Washington, D.C. at the Round Robin Bar inside the Willard Hotel in 1850. The bar still serves the “Henry Clay Mint Julep” made with his original recipe.

6. It Was Ironically Considered a City Drink, Not a Country Cocktail

Contrary to its current Kentucky Derby association, the mint julep was originally popular primarily in big Southern cities, not the countryside. The cocktail was served in hotel bars and fancy city restaurants.

7. Ice Transformed Mint Juleps Into a Sensation

Before ice became more readily available in the 1800s, mint juleps were unpleasantly warm and skunky. The advent of ice houses brought chilled cocktails like juleps and cobblers to hot Southern cities, much to everyone’s relief and delight.

8. The Cocktail Inspired Silver Cup Traditions

Silver julep cups first came into vogue in the early 1800s along with iced drinks. The metal cup frosts on the outside while keeping the cocktail chilled, unlike glassware. Drinking from silver julep cups remains a cherished ritual.

9. F. Scott Fitzgerald and Margaret Mitchell Referenced It

The mint julep made appearances in famous novels of the 1920s and 30s. Both F. Scott Fitzgerald and Margaret Mitchell mentioned the cocktail in The Great Gatsby and Gone With the Wind, cementing its cultural significance.

10. It Has Been the Official Drink of the Kentucky Derby Since 1938

Churchill Downs finally designated the mint julep as the official drink of the Kentucky Derby in 1938. Now almost 120,000 juleps are served over the two-day race period each year.

11. Perfected Recipes Remain Hotly Debated

From the type of bourbon to the kind of ice to the mint, there is no consensus on the “perfect” mint julep recipe. Some muddle mint leaves while others use an infused mint syrup. And don’t even mention fruit additions!

12. The Cocktail Has Appeared in Many Songs

Musical artists from various genres have penned odes to the mint julep, including songs by Duke Ellington, The Clovers, and Chris Rea. Ray Charles’ R&B version of “One Mint Julep” became a breakout hit in 1961.

13. There Have Been Some Crazy Experiments

As the mint julep rose to prominence, ambitious mixologists began creating exotic spins. There were champagne juleps, gin juleps, pineapple juleps, and everything in between. But bourbon and mint remain the classic combination.

14. You Can Spend a Small Fortune on One at the Derby

Charity auction mint juleps at the Kentucky Derby have fetched crazy prices. The current record is $2,500 for a single mint julep served in a gold-plated cup with a sipping straw made of actual gold.

15. Early Juleps Were Much Stronger Than Our Version

The original rum-based mint juleps of the 1700s and early 1800s packed a wallop with their high-proof spirits and lack of ice. Modern juleps made with bourbon and plenty of ice provide a smoother, more refreshing drinking experience.

16. It’s a Cocktail That Always Comes Back in Style

While the mint julep has wavered in popularity over the past 200 years, it never disappears for long. The cocktail experiences periodic revivals and makeovers for new generations to enjoy. Its stand-the-test-of-time appeal seems here to stay.

Conclusion

From ancient Persian elixirs to modern Kentucky Derby traditions, the mint julep has certainly left its mark in cocktail history. It’s been prescribed as medicine, touted as a morning eye-opener, and immortalized in movies and songs.

This list of 16 facts only scratches the surface of the rich lore behind mint juleps. But one thing is certain – its legacy as an iconic Southern drink is set in stone. The refreshing old fashioned cocktail will no doubt continue to delight bourbon and mint fans for centuries to come.

So next time you sip a mint julep, raise your silver cup to all the fascinating stories it could tell!


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