Mint Juleps are considered the quintessential refreshing beverages associated with the southern United States. Undoubtedly, there were Mint Juleps on large plantation estates like Tara in the movie, gone With the Wind and in our imaginations, juleps are most often enjoyed in the shade of a beautiful broad-leaved magnolia tree reminiscent of milder, more affluent times. For outdoor summer entertaining, Juleps served in ice cold cups definitely continue to steal the show. But no one is really sure about the origins of this highly romantic drink associated with lost worlds of grandeur and tradition.
A drink with a story
Mint Juleps are even now a famous drink associated with the Kentucky Derby, where 120,000 mint juleps are served on Churchill Downs within two days of the race. Churchill Downs is also famous for featuring the world’s largest mint julep cup, standing 6 feet tall and shaped like an official 2008 Derby cup. 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 shot of spirits containing mint, taken by Virginians one morning.”
What’s in a julep?
This drink is still made according to the time-honored tradition that includes bourbon, sugar, and water with a garnish of mint (usually spearmint). The mint garnish is meant to entice and enhance the flavor starting with the aroma before drinking. The preparation of the drink varies between bartenders and no one really knows where this unusual drink originated, but here is a traditional southern recipe.
- About 20 mint leaves
- 2 teaspoons of sugar
- 2 to 3 ounces Bourbon
- lots of crushed ice
Put mint leaves and sugar in a pewter mug. Crush leaves and sugar until sugar dissolves. Add bourbon and stir. Fill a pewter mug with crushed ice and stir until an icy frost develops on the outside of the mug. Garnish with additional mint leaves or a whole sprig and serve immediately. This recipe will make a mint julep cocktail.
How to serve a mint julep
Pewter goblets (or silver, if you don’t mind polishing them) are the preferred drinking vessels for enjoying this revered but unusual beverage. Glass has also been used, but pewter retains the cold and acts almost like a thermos.
If you’ve never heard of the rules for holding a cup before, keep this in mind: You’re only supposed to hold a pewter mint julep cup by the bottom and top edges! This is so frost can form and accumulate on the larger outer surface (presumably so you feel cooler in hot weather). It is also believed that if you hold the mug by the sides, the heat from your hand will penetrate and overheat the drink. After all, the whole point of drinking a Mint Julep is to keep you cool and collected, if not a little tipsy, when the weather outside is merely hot.
a colonial favorite
Fine pewter Richmond Julep goblets are still available today and are patterned after the originals made and used in colonial times. This goblet was crafted by skilled pewter smiths in Richmond, Virginia, and with its smooth, lustrous sheen, it was the shimmering drinking vessel that brought classic charm to home entertainment during the colonial era. The Richmond Julep Cup was designed with a delicate beaded rim and a raised base (perhaps to remind people to restrict gripping the cup by the rim and base).
Pewter drinking glasses were also inspired by the beakers once owned by George Washington and today there is a Jefferson glass available which is a replica of the one originally used at Monticello and was made under the direction of Jefferson.
The versatility of pewter
Pewter Mint Julep glasses are ideal for both formal and informal occasions, providing a casual feel for outdoor entertaining and a sophisticated presence for more formal events. And for those who “think outside the box,” Pewter Mint Julep Cups make delightful wedding or party favors, or can be filled with fresh-cut flowers at each place setting for guests to enjoy. Group them together to make stunning centerpieces too.
Pewter’s versatility is the main reason it is one of the most popular compositions for Mint Julep mugs. It’s the warm sheen and patina that makes the difference, the ability to hold cold, and of course pewter never has to be polished like silver.
Mint Juleps and Summer Hospitality
The next time you’re planning a party, barbecue, or inviting guests to sit with you on the deck or poolside, consider serving Mint Juleps—perhaps the perfect drink for summer entertaining. The wonderful cold goodness of this charming southern drink served in the antebellum mansions of a fancier era will leave your guests feeling warmly welcome, refreshed from the summer heat, and definitely in good spirits. And if you have a magnolia tree for your guests to stand or lean on, that’s even better!