Origins of the mint julep

30 Aug

No one knows for sure how the ancient mint julep came into being. I strongly suspect that, even if the personal diary of its inventor miraculously turned up, having been stored for years next to the Ark of the Covenant in a faceless US government warehouse, the tale it told would not be especially interesting: one day some guy hit on the idea of adding mint to liquor. Here, then, are three more fanciful origin stories for the mint julep.

*****

[1] The Mint-Julep

‘Tis said that the gods, on Olympus of old,
(And who, the bright legend profanes with a doubt,)
One night, ’mid their revels, by Bacchus were told
That his last butt of nectar had somehow run out!

But determined to send round the goblet once more,
They sued to the fairer immortals for aid
In composing a draught, which, till drinking were o’er,
Should cast every wine ever drank in the shade.

Grave Ceres herself blithely yielded her corn,
And the spirit that lives in each amber-hued grain,
And which first had its birth from the dew of the morn,
Was taught to steal out in bright dew drops again.

Pomona, whose choicest of fruits on the board
Were scatter’d profusely in every one’s reach,
When call’d on a tribute to cull from the hoard,
Express’d the mild juice of the delicate peach.

The liquids were mingled while Venus look’d on
With glances so fraught with sweet-magical power,
That the honey of Hybla, e’en when they were gone,
Has never been miss’d in the draught from that hour.

Flora, then, from her bosom of fragrance shook,
And with roseate fingers pressed down in the bowl,
As dripping and fresh as it came from the brook,
The herb whose aroma should flavor the whole.

The draught was delicious, each god did exclaim,
Though something seem’d wanting for all to bewail,
But juleps the drink of immortals became,
When Jove himself added a handful of hail.

— Charles Fenno Hoffman, Love’s Calendar: Lays of the Hudson and other Poems (New York: Appleton, 1848), pp. 137-8.

******

The following anecdote was passed around a number of newspapers in the autumn of 1890.

[2] Birth of the Mint Julep

[…] Some years ago when passing a farm in the State of Kentucky a traveler stopped at the farmer’s house on the roadside, and, getting off his horse, asked the smiling old lord of the big estate if he could have a glass of water.

“Why, yes,” was the reply, “and maybe you would not object to a little of the good old stuff in it.”

“Not a bit, my friend,” answered the traveller, and the old man went to supply the wants of the weary rider. While on his mission of charity the traveler’s nasal organ came in contact with the sweet odor that emanated from a large bed of mint in an adjoining kitchen garden, and on being given a glass of clear spring water with a bumper of “genuine old grog” thrown in, asked his benefactor if he would not kindly give him a bunch of the mint. He got it, and dipped it into his glass several times until nicely flavored and then drank.

The old gentleman was surprised and asked what in the name of Heaven he had done that for, to which the thankful traveler replied by asking if he would permit him to mix one for him. The farmer consented, and after drinking smacked his lips and said, “Grand.” The traveler continued his way after thanking his host for the hospitality shown him, having mixed the first mint julep heard of.

Four years later he passed the same way again and stopped at the same old farmer’s house for a glass of water. Instead of his old friend he was met at the door by an old lady wearing a nicely bordered cap. “May I have a glass of water, ma’am?” asked the traveler. “Certainly,” was the kind reply. “But where is your husband?” asked the stranger as he drank a glass of plain water. “Well, you see, sir, about four years ago a stranger passed this way and taught my poor husband how to drink his whisky with grass in it. He never drank his whisky after that without grass in it, and when the grass gave out he died.”

Chicago Tribune, 29 August, 1890, p. 7.

*****

Our final, rather rambling account, which first appeared in the Louisville Courier-Journal, does two things: it tells a shaggy dog story about the birth of the julep and allows spokesmen for the rival Virginian and Kentuckian styles to have their say.

[3] The Seductive Mint Julep

Do you crush the mint, or don’t you?

So far as can be discovered this is the rock from which the concocters of the seductive julep stagger apart. Ask an old Virginian and watch him bristle.

“D——n it, man, don’t talk folly. Of course you don’t. The mint is meant to smell. Do you think I eat grass like a horse?”

Then propound your question to a member of the advanced school. He will smile blandly upon you and smack his lips.

“Of course, those old fellows are all right, but we move quickly now. They are to be honored for the discovery, but we have improved upon it. You crush it to get the taste, then put some choice sprigs in the top.”

These are the two beliefs, and since that first time in the long ago when a schoolboy discovered the properties of the now famous mint, this controversy has been waged.

Many are the stories of the discovery, but the only authentic one is vouched for by half a dozen old Southerners who know whereof they speak.

Near an old school house in Virginia was a famous spring. No one knew just why the water was cooler, more pleasant and altogether more satisfying than the water of other springs about. The fact, though, was generally admitted.

The name of the school was “hare and hound”. When the youngsters would come in hot and tired they always rushed for the cool spring. The last ones there, of course, had to wait until the others were through drinking. There was one youngster, not so fast as the rest, but with a better head.  He always went leisurely to another spring, not so good, but where he could drink undisturbed.

Finally the teacher noticed the lad’s action and asked:

“Tom, why is it you go to that spring right out in the open where the water is hot, instead of to the cool one under the willows?”

“It all tastes the same to me,” answered the boy.

“That is impossible,” said the teacher.

The lad flushed up. “Well, I reckon I drink it,” he said. “I oughter know. I jest get some grass from around that spring under the trees and eat it and then the water out in the sun tastes just as cool as that in the shade. If you don’t believe it, just you try.”

His teacher did try and found what the lad said was true. And that was the discovery of the mint, for such was the “grass” about the shaded spring. The teacher figured that by putting some of the cool weed in his whisky and water the decoction would be cool. The smell of the plant was also pleasant to his nostrils.

That teacher is said to have been Col. Abe Carter, one of the famous Virginia Carters, and to him properly belongs the honor of having discovered, by accident, the mint julep. The name of the boy to whom the credit really belongs has been lost in oblivion.

A reporter athirst for information started to make the rounds in an endeavor to discover for himself just what constitutes the perfect julep. First he sought the old Virginia colonel. With that courtliness which cannot now be duplicated, the old cavalier welcomed his guest. “Come right in, my son. A julep, you say? Of course.” Raising his voice, he called: “Caesar”. The old body servant appeared. “Caesar, some mint and cracked ice.”

“Now, now, my boy, don’t say you wanted to know how. That is impossible. Watch, drink and be wise.”

“Watch,” said the Colonel.

Into the glass he poured a measure of water, just an ounce, no more, no less. Then he refilled the measure with whisky, guaranteed to be 20 years old.

“Just smell that, my boy,” he said, lovingly. “Not a headache in the barrel.”

He poured the ounce of whisky upon the ounce of water, and they mingled. From the mint on the water there floated that indescribable odor that the old Colonel believes slipped out one day through the narrow gate of Paradise when St Peter had his backed turned. Now the old cavalier measured out just a dram of pure syrup and poured it into the whisky and water. Next he dropped in the cracked ice, and then he put in the mint so that not a leaf was bruised. Swiftly he held it toward his guest.

“Quick, quick, my boy: drink it before the ice melting spoils the proportions of the mixture.”

The reporter buried his nose in that bunch of mint—and it was very, very good. When the glass came down there was one young man who felt that life was not all in vain.

“That’s the secret,” said the Colonel. “It must be drank, not sipped. Five minutes, even three minutes, ruins it. Fresh mint, old whisky, pure syrup and pure water, then drink it right away.”

“I remember,” he went on, “when the G.A.R. [Grand Army of the Republic] was here, an old friend brought half a dozen of them up to see me. You know, I was never a very ardent G.A.R. man, so I did not know what to do with them. I proposed a mint julep. They had never heard of one. I did not know how they would like it, but I trusted to the mint. They drank around, and then one fellow asked, hesitatingly, if it would be within the laws of courtesy, he would like to try another. You should have seen their faces when I said yes.”

The Colonel paused.

“How did it end?” asked the reporter.

“Well, said the colonel, “when they went away some of them wanted to run me for President, and their old Colonel took me aside to tell me in confidence that if the Confederates had brought mint juleps against them instead of guns the whole ‘d——d Union army would have surrendered on the spot for a taste.’

“It’s a natural taste, one a fellow can’t get away from. I wish, though, some fellow would invent a double cup, the outside one to hold the ice. Then a gentleman could sip his julep.

“Some people, you know, won’t give a beginner more than one julep. That’s wrong, for it’s a natural taste, and the more you give them the better they like it. But, my boy, remember the mint must be fresh.”

The seeker for julep knowledge next hunted up a disciple of the more modern school. This gentleman, an ex-Rough Rider, was found in his flat with a frosted silver mug beside him. He said not a word in greeting, but arose, beaming silently, and got another mug.

The reporter took observations.

“I’m of the new school,” said the ex-Rough Rider, so “watch me. A Kentucky girl visiting her brother, an army officer in Arizona, taught me, and her way beats those old Virginians all to pieces. They never taste the mint. I do.”

While he was talking he had slipped to the ice box and brought out a handful of mint.

“Half an hour from the bed,” he said. Then quickly he crushed several stalks and put them in the bottom of the mug. He put in about an ounce of water, one teaspoonful of powdered sugar, ice to fill the mug nearly to the top, then about three fingers of whisky, so mellow, rich and oily that one hated to see it hidden in the silver mug. A crowning glory of mint was added to the top, and by that time frost had completely whitened the silver mug.

“Rye straw?” asked the reporter?

“Straw be d——d,” replied his host. “Drink.”  The guest took the mug and the Elysian Field drifted down to less than half a square away.

“Did you taste the delicate flavor of the mint? Don’t that beat any Virginia style drink you ever tasted?” demanded the host, as his guest, with a deep sigh, relinquished the cup.

“I’m undecided. I—I can’t tell exactly,” stammered the reporter.

The other laughed cheerfully. “All right, we’ll convince you,” he said, and straightaway began another julep.

This time Venus walked right down off her throne out into the midst of the Elysian Fields and she and the scribe sat down to drink nectar together. As he came back to earth he could hear his host murmuring in the far distance: “The mint must be fresh.” And really that seems to be the secret of it all.

Baltimore Sun, 4 January 1902, p. 9.

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