J IS FOR JULEP
By Matthew Latkiewicz
J is for julep. A drink we now only associate with the word mint, but which our drinking forebears knew in all sorts of varieties.
The gin julep, the brandy julep, and my favorite “the julep made in the scientific style” which included slices of lemon, orange and pineapple rubbed across the rim of the glass, and then tossed away. Whatever the variations, the basics of the julep, are about as simple as drink-making gets. Spirits, water, and sugar. That’s it.
The drink predates even the cocktail as discussed in The Letter C. It was found as early as 1784, when it would be slung back at room temperature as a hair of the dog treatment. This is of course unappealing and so the drink really only took off after ice became readily available to bars and restaurants, where bartenders started experimenting with the simple drink. Mint was added pretty early on. Wondrich puts it at about 1802, as was the silver cup and straw. Nowhere more impressively than a John Dabney’s Richmond Virginia hotel bar in the 1850s. His julep came in a giant silver cup topped with a one foot tall pyramid of ice. The massive silver cup was also encrusted with ice on the sides along with heaps of mint and fruit – like a fancy southern scorpion bowl – it served multiple people each with their own silver straw.
The drink became a veritable tourist attraction in Virginia. A Kentucky journalist visiting Richmond in 1860, wrote of Dabney’s drink: “The Julep a la Dabney is world-wide art”. Now, this being Richmond Virginia in the 1850s, John Dabney was upsettingly, and shamefully not a free man. When he was mixing up his juleps, he was enslaved by the hotel’s owners the DeJarnette family. I bring this up not to make mint juleps sad for you, but to highlight how even in something as seemingly light and fun as cocktails, their histories and cultural legacies are forgotten to bigotry.
As drinkers it’s important we tell these stories and remember these names. A lot of what we know today as the mint julep is thanks to John Dabney. So next time you’re holding a silver cup filled with what is essentially whiskey sweet tea garnished with a bouquet of mint, raise it in his honor.
Here’s to you John Dabney.
To learn more about John Dabney in the history of black mixology I point you to David Wondrich’s article The Bitter Southerner. A lot of good writing on the subject but as with most things drinking in history, his is a good place to start.
Now unlike a lot of early mixed drink styles (I’m looking at you Crusta’s and slings, #Liqourshade) the mint julep never really went away, thanks in large part of course, to the Kentucky Derby which was in a tide of old south nostalgia at the time, and the mint julep became the official drink in 1938. I’ve never been, so I’ll let Hunter S. Thompson describe the scene: “Thousands of raving, stumbling drunks getting angrier and angrier as they lose more and more money. By mid-afternoon they’ll be guzzling mint juleps with both hands and vomiting on each other between the races”. Sounds awesome to me.
So how do you make a mint julep? Well with respect to Mr. Dabney whose recipe (like most juleps at the time) used brandy and employed multiple garnishes, it’s hard to beat the simplicity of southern writer Walker Percy’s recipe from his SA Bourbon. You need excellent bourbon whiskey. Rye or scotch, will not do. Put half an inch of sugar in the bottom of the glass and merely dampen it with water. Next, very quickly (and here is the trick and the whole procedure) crush your ice – actually powder it so quickly that it remains dry. Slip two sprigs of fresh mint against the inside of the glass, then cram the ice right to the brim, packing it with your hand. Finally, fill the glass (which apparently has no room left for anything else) with bourbon – the older the better. And grate yourself a little bit of nutmeg on the top. The glass will immediately frost and then you just settle back in your chair for half an hour of accumulative bliss.
J is for julep.