The annual Kentucky Derby is now held on the first Saturday in May; however, the first running of the Derby was on Monday, May 17, 1875. Today, we mark the 135th anniversary of the first Derby with a salute to the traditional beverage of the Kentucky Derby, the mint julep. Precisely when the mint julep came to have its special association with the Kentucky Derby is a matter for conjecture, but it is quite probable that the festivities of that very first race were enlivened by mint juleps. An article in the New York Times, July 20, 1873, mentions mint juleps in connection with the races at Long Branch, N.J. Mint juleps were enjoyed all over the U.S. in the nineteenth century, but they were a perennial favorite in the warmer southern states where a refreshing, summer drink was most welcome. There is much debate and variety of preferences as to what constitutes a “proper” mint julep—such things as whether it should be made with brandy,
Cognac, whisky, etc., whether the mint should be crushed, what kind of mint to use, how much sugar to use, whether it is a “tall” or “short” drink, and what kind of vessel it should be served in. Of course, a Kentucky mint julep would always be made with bourbon. Recipes abound on the Internet.
Juleps can be served in tall glasses, old-fashioned glasses, goblets, or short silver beakers, sometimes called julep cups. A silver goblet or cup is often recommended because the metal facilitates the formation of frost on the outside of the vessel, a delightful sight on a hot summer day. The illustration of a silver beaker of the type that is often referred to as a julep cup, especially in the South, was made by a Charleston, S.C. firm and dates to the mid-nineteenth century (American Silver of the XVII & XVIII Centuries: a Study Based on the Clearwater Collection, by C. Louise Avery. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1920, p. 176).
The Trade Literature Collections at the National Museum of American History Library and the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum Library in New York include numerous catalogs of silver manufacturers, wholesalers, and retailers of silverware.
The early medicinal association of juleps, originally a syrup to which medicine was added, was not entirely lost in the 19th century. The National Postal Museum’s collection includes an 1835 letter from U.S. Navy Surgeon, David Shelton Edwards, to his wife, Harriet, advising her to drink mint juleps to combat seasickness. She was preparing to embark on a journey by steamboat from New York to join him in Florida.
The Bon Vivant’s Companion by Jerry Thomas.
The Kentucky Mint Julep by Joe Nickell.
Drink: a social history of America, by Andrew Barr.
Image (top): Julep Cup
Julep Cup: A short beaker, generally of silver (The primer of American antiques, by Carl W. Drepperd. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Doran & Co, 1944)
Image (bottom): Mint Julep, photograph by Lowell Ashley