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Mint Juleps

OK, did they have mint juleps in the 18th century ?

The short answer is no with a but.…

Let’s talk about the mint julep that they serve at Kentucky Derby Day. The exact history of this drink is somewhat of a mystery, but there are a number of factors that lead me to think that it is a early 19th-century creation.

First, this drink is typically made by taking mint leaves and mashing them up in a sugar syrup. then adding bourbon and shaved ice. The first problem is bourbon whiskey. Bourbon whiskey is named after Bourbon County in Kentucky, which was established in 1786.

It is different from other whiskeys of that time in several ways:

One, by law Bourbon must contain at least 51 percent corn.

And two,  it is made with a particular type of soft water coming from limestone deposits in that part of the country.

Third, it’s aged in highly chard oak barrels to give it its dark color.

Most sources trace bourbon to a Baptist minister who lived in that area in the 1790s. I also doubt that there was a lot of shaved ice available in 18th-century Kentucky.

Now having said all that,  it’s important to note that there probably were similar types of drinks available in the 18th century and even further back.

The term “julep” can be traced through France to north Africa and Persia. The people of this area were big users of mint. They made it into teas and even now drink it constantly.

This region was also the first to distill alcohol.

To honor Kentucky Derby Day, we can offer this Mint Cordial recipe from Mary Randolph:

  • Put two handfuls of mint into a pitcher with a quart of French brandy.
  • Cover and let it stand until the next day.
  • Take the mint out carefully and put as much in again, which must be taken out the next day.
  • Do this a third time.
  • Then add three quarts of water to the brandy, along with 1 pound of loaf sugar powdered.
  • Mix it well and when clear, bottle it.

For all intents and purposes, this is a mint julep. The only differences are that Mrs. Randolph’s method uses French brandy instead of bourbon, there is no ice and the name is different.

I have even seen a recipe for mint juleps that includes a simple sugar syrup mixed with mint leaves for a day or two — then use that to make the juleps.

So there is no easy answer to this question. One solution might be to have the taverns call this drink a mint cordial. They could make it with brandy and call it our version of a mint julep, or make it the traditional way and just call it mint cordial

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