Aside from morally casual mistakes, regret and possibly horses, there aren’t many things more closely associated with horse-racing season than the mint julep. When it was first promoted at the Kentucky Derby in 1938, the julep had already been around southern U.S. states for at least 140 years. Reference to the cocktail in print first appeared in Englishman John Davis’ 1803 book, Travels of Four Years and a Half in the United States of America.
In what might be the first documented record of day-drinking, Davis cites the julep as “a dram of spirituous liquor that has mint steeped in it, taken by Virginians of a morning.”
Not to be outdone by morning-boozing Virginians, Kentucky Senator Henry Clay was reported to have popularized the drink in the Capitol, slugging them down while winking at women in the Willard Hotel’s Round Robin Bar (which likely explains why Lincoln used to call Clay his “ideal of a great man,” but that’s for another history lesson).
“It kind of socialized the use of whiskey and bourbon by elongating the drinking experience, and taking what was historically more of a man’s drink and making it accessible for everyone,” says celebrated San Diego mixologist Johnny Rivera.
Rivera, who is co-owner of The Tractor Room in Hillcrest and the new Great Maple in University Heights, explains that the mint julep played the important role of getting 19th and early-20th century American women to drink great booze. He says the julep (derived from “gulab,” the Persian word for “rose water”) is a sweet, syrupy drink, but warns against over-sweetening or “mutilating the mint.”
“You want to grind the ice and muddle the sugar, but you should just bruise the mint to release the flavors, not muddle it,” he says. “Some people end up muddling it so much, it looks like pesto, and that ruins the whole event.” In addition to the delicate balance of mint, the julep has three ounces of whiskey.
“That thing is a cloaked tiger,” Rivera says, laughing. “Sure, it comes with a very polite presentation and tastes like a boozy slushie, but it’s mean. It’ll put you on your ass.”
The Tractor Room’s Mint Julep
2 La Perruche (pure cane) sugar cubes
3 oz. Knob Creek bourbon whiskey
Muddle sugar cubes with a splash of simple syrup and club soda. Spank/slap a handful of mint leaves (no stems), and then gently muddle them into mixture. Add Knob Creek and stir. Top with shaved ice, four ice cubes, mint sprig and powdered sugar.
The Tractor Room
3687 Fifth Ave., Hillcrest