The world-renowned Mint Julep is a mixture of mint, sugar, and bourbon, but some historians argue that the first Juleps may have been made with common brandy. If Freud is more talked about than read, the Mint Julep is more read about than drunk. One survey revealed that while 70 percent of Americans not from the South had never tasted a Mint Julep, 73 percent of Southerners had never had one either. Champions of the Julep protest that the drink stirred up by the vat-full on Kentucky Derby Day is a pale horse to the spirited classic. Add to this that Bourbon County was originally owned by Virginia, also claiming the drink’s invention, and you have a greater muddle than the mint in the bottom of the glass. I should mention that muddling mint is considered as abhorrent by some as it is extolled by others and that Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Mississippi all also say they were home to the first Mint Julep.
Historically, the root of the Julep is not Southern or American, but Arabic—julab means “rosewater”—and doctors called any beverage that disguised the taste of medicine a “julep.” Prior to the Civil War, brandy or whiskey was common in a julep, but the poverty of the South after the war gave rise to the use of less expensive bourbon. As to the proper proportions, method of mixing, and who originated the cocktail, William Grimes in Straight Up or On the Rocks states: “If the mark of a great cocktail is the number of arguments it can provoke and the number of unbreakable rules it generates, the Mint Julep may be America’s preeminent classic, edging out the Martini in a photo finish.”
To muddle or not to muddle, that is the question that could result in fisticuffs. Frances Parkinson Keyes recalled the last words of a Virginia gentleman: “Never insult a woman, never bring a horse into the house, and never crush the mint in a Julep.” Whether or not you decide to crush your mint, make certain that it is fresh. And do leave the horse outdoors.