Mint Juleps are considered the quintessential cooling drinks associated with the Southern United States. Undoubtedly, there were Mint Juleps at grand plantation estates like Tara in the film, Gone with the Wind and in our imaginations, Juleps are most often enjoyed in the shade of a beautiful, broad leafed Magnolia tree reminiscent of gentler, more opulent times. For outdoor summer entertaining, Juleps served in icy cold cups do still definitely steal the show. But no one is really sure about the origins of this highly romanticized beverage associated with lost worlds of grandeur and tradition.
A Drink with a Story
Mint Juleps are even now, a famous beverage associated with the Kentucky Derby, where 120,000 juleps are served at Churchill Downs within two days of racing. Churchill Downs is also famous for unveiling the world’s largest mint julep glass, 6 feet tall and in the shape of an official 2008 Derby glass. It can hold 206 gallons of mint juleps dispensed via a complicated pumping system.
The first time a Mint Julep appeared in print was in a book published in London in 1803 where the drink was described as “a dram of spirituous liquor that has mint steeped in it, taken by Virginians of a morning.”
What’s in a Julep?
This drink is still made in the time honored tradition that includes bourbon, sugar and water with a mint garnish (usually spearmint). The mint garnish is meant to entice and enhance the flavor beginning with the scent before actually drinking. Drink preparation varies with various bartenders and no one really knows where this unusual drink had its origins, but here is a traditional Southern recipe.
- About 20 mint leaves
- 2 tsp sugar
- 2 to 3 oz. bourbon
- Plenty of crushed ice
Put mint leaves and sugar in a pewter cup. Muddle leaves and sugar until sugar dissolves. Add bourbon and stir. Fill a pewter cup with crushed ice and stir until an icy frost develops on the outside of the cup. Garnish with additional mint leaves or a whole sprig and serve immediately. This recipe will make one Mint Julep Cocktail.
How to Serve a Mint Julep
Pewter cups (or silver, if you don’t mind polishing) are the drinking vessels of choice when indulging in this revered but still unusual beverage. Glass has been used too, but pewter retains the cold and acts almost like a thermos container.
If you have never heard of rules for holding a cup before, keep this one in mind: you are only supposed to hold a Pewter Mint Julep Cup by the bottom and top edges! This is so that frost will form and build up on the larger outside surface (presumably to make you feel cooler in warm weather). It is also thought that if you hold the cup by its sides, the heat from your hand will penetrate and make the drink too warm. The object of drinking a Mint Julep after all, is to keep you cool and serene, if not a bit tipsy, when the weather outside is just plain hot.
A Colonial Favorite
Fine pewter Richmond Julep Cups are still available today and are patterned after the originals made and used in Colonial times. This cup was made by expert pewter smiths in Richmond, Virginia, and with its soft, lustrous sheen, was the glowing drinking vessel that brought classic charm to home entertaining during the Colonial era. The Richmond Julep Cup was designed with a delicate beaded rim and a raised base (perhaps to remind folks to restrict holding the cup to its rim and base).
Pewter drinking cups were also inspired by beakers once owned by George Washington and there is a Jefferson Cup available today that is a replication of the one originally used at Monticello that was made under Jefferson’s direction.
The Versatility of Pewter
Pewter Mint Julep cups are ideal for both formal and informal occasions because they lend a casual feeling to outdoor entertaining and a sophisticated presence to more formal events. And for those who “think outside the box”, pewter Mint Julep cups make delightful wedding or party favors or they can be filled with freshly cut flowers at each place setting for guests to enjoy. Cluster them to make stunning centerpieces as well.
The versatility of pewter is the main reason it is one of the most popular compositions for Mint Julep cups. It’s the warm glow and patina that make the difference, the ability to hold cold, and of course, pewter never has to be polished like silver.
Mint Juleps and Summer Hospitality
Next time you plan a party, a barbecue, or invite guests to sit with you on the deck or by the pool, think about serving Mint Juleps – perhaps the perfect drink for summer entertaining. The wonderful chilled goodness of this charming Southern beverage served in the antebellum mansions of a more elegant era will leave your guests feeling warmly welcomed, cooled down from the summer heat, and definitely of good cheer. And if you have a Magnolia tree for your guests to stand under or lean on, why, that’s even better!