The Mint Julep – A Brief History

Now famous as a way to beat the summer heat, the Mint Julep is best known as the official drink of the Kentucky derby. The roots of the Julep can be traced back to the early 1700s, when a Julep was a medicinal drink combining herbs and aromatics, roots, and often Camphor. These Juleps were made to treat a variety of ills, mostly stomach problems.

By 1820, the state of Virginia had adopted the Julep as part of it’s local identity. Now, the man credited with the creation of the Mint Julep was Jasper Crouch of Richmond but it became popular around 1850’s thanks to a man named John Dabney. Dabney gained his initial experience as a bartender in a Richmond hotel owned by Cara Williamson DeJarnette. Soon after, Dabney began working at the Sweet Springs resort in West Virginia, known as “The Old Sweet” to its regulars. 

John Dabney

The mint juleps that Dabney created were visual masterpieces. One account describes “a giant, multi-serving silver cup topped with a one-foot-tall pyramid of ice, ice-encrusted sides and a cornucopia of fruits sticking to the ice in stunning artistic designs.” The drink was so tasty and visually impressive that it had many local fans but also drew visits from tourists and foreign dignitaries. 

Queen Victoria’s son, Edward Prince of Wales just had to try one after hearing: Richmond boasts the possession of the best compounder of cooling drinks in the world. Newspaper accounts at the time reported that the prince was so impressed by Dabney’s Mint Julep, he ordered two more before leaving the following morning.

On another occasion, a Kentucky journalist visiting Richmond wrote the following “The Julep a la Dabney is world-wide art bestowed upon personages whom he holds in high esteem.” It is worth noting that anyone in the service industry can tell you that giving guests the illusion of being held in high esteem is very important to success. It must have been more so in Dabney’s time.

John Dabney was born into slavery and was working under his owner while being praised for his Mint Juleps. He was a black man working in a southern bar with a highly influential white clientele. Any perceived missteps could literally have been a life or death issue. Despite his success, he was still not a free man. He was only allowed to keep a portion of his earnings with the rest going to his owner. Thankfully, his popularity allowed him to accrue enough money to be able to purchase freedom for himself and his wife, Elizabeth.

He began paying for his freedom just before the start of the Civil War. He paid off the balance after the war, despite the end of slavery. Reportedly, doing so allowed Dabney, a shrewd businessman, to secure credit at any bank in Richmond. By the 1870s, Dabney and Elizabeth had opened their own successful restaurant where he continued to work until the week of his death. John Dabney passed away at his home on June 7, 1900, at the age of 76, but his Mint Julep legacy would be carried on. Dabney never wrote his recipe down, because he never learned to read or write, but he taught it to his son as follows “Crushed ice, as much as you can pack in, and sugar, mint bruised and put in with the ice, then your good brandy, and the top surmounted by more mint, a strawberry, a cherry, a slice of pineapple,” or, as his father expressed it to him, “any other fixings you like.” 

The cocktail itself is very simple and straightforward but definitely welcomes a creative flair. Dabney’s recipe called for 3 oz. of peach brandy, likely made from real peaches rather than just flavored, but you can use apple brandy, dark rum, Cognac, or any combination of the three if you can’t find real peach brandy.

To make the Mint Julep base pour ½ oz of simple syrup into a large glass tumbler or silver cup. If you don’t have simple syrup, you can make your own by combining 1 spoonful sugar with 2 spoonfuls water and stirring until dissolved. You can get more detailed directions on making simple syrup at home here.

Next, put 6-8 leaves of mint into the tumbler and press well with a muddler or the end of a bar spoon. Remember, you’re trying to squeeze the oils out of the mint and extract the mint flavor, but not pulverize the leaves. You can also add peach, lemon, orange or cherry to your base if you’d like. Then, remove the pressed mint from the tumbler and toss it. 

Add about 3 ounces of peach brandy (or bourbon, dark rum, Cognac, or any dark liquor you have on hand, you’re looking for sweetness and complexity) and stir. Next, add the ice, and Juleps call for a lot of ice, during the time of John Dabney people often called these drinks “Hail Storm Juleps.” Shaved, crushed, or pounded ice is essential for making a proper julep. The ice causes the profile to change as it melts. John Dabney used to shave his ice with a carpenter’s plane, mounted blade side up, with wooden sides below to catch the falling bits of ice. The easiest way to crush ice at home is to put ice cubes in a bag or wrap them in a clean towel and pound them with a rolling pin or a mallet.

Fill the tumbler completely with shaved ice and then add more in a cone on top. And now, the garnish. This is where the bartender’s skill and creativity really come into play. The basic garnish is to take sprigs of mint, use the sprigs you pulled the leaves off of to make the base, and insert them into the ice with their stems downward, arranging the leaves to make an aromatic backdrop. Arrange berries and cut fruit on top of the mint and ice, add a few flower blossoms and petals. For even more aromatic thrill, sprinkle some grated nutmeg or cinnamon on the top. If you are really ambitious, take more shaved ice, mold it into ornamental shapes, and press them against the side of the goblet, so they stick to the chilled glass or silver. Don’t worry if you can’t get this last part right. Dabney’s own son, Wendell, who tried to imitate his father while working alongside him during summers at the resort springs, admitted, “I could never make the ice stick on the outside of a big Mint Julep.”

Once you’ve completed your masterpiece, insert a long straw, preferably metal if you have one, into the ice and all the way to the bottom of the drink and serve.