The Mint Julep: Ambrosia of Achilles to the Dixian

“When the mint is in the liquor and its fragrance on the glass, it breathes a recollection that can never, never pass.” – Southern writer Clarence Ousley

The mint julep has become synonymous with civilized society and Southern hospitality, which of course are one in the same. In fact, there is simply no other drink that displays the true chivalric tradition of the Old South more than this luscious elixir. Its serving is a ceremony of sorts to show your respect for close family and friends deemed worthy of its receipt. Back in the old days, juleps and other similar libations were most often consumed first thing in the morning as a type of “anti-fogmatic,” such as coffee is used today. As early as the beginning of the 1800’s there were the earliest references to what I might consider a mint julep, but back in those days the alcohol was Cognac, French brandy. Ice entered into the elixir as a “hailstorm” by the 1830’s and during the War for Southern Independence, the available alcohol of choice would often have been peach brandy.

Confederate General Richard Taylor, son of President Zackery Taylor was a planter and graduate of military history. Nathan Bedford Forrest once remarked of Taylor, “If we’d had more like him, we would have licked the Yankees long ago”.  But what was the source of his power? While stationed near Charlottesville, Va the general once reminisced about a local Southern aristocrat who invited him to breakfast:

“…a huge silver goblet filled with Virginia’s nectar, mint julep. Quantities of cracked ice rattled refreshingly in the goblet; sprigs of mint peered above its rim; a mass of white sugar, too sweetly indolent to melt, rested on the mint; and like rose buds on a snow bank, luscious strawberries crowned the sugar. Ah! That julep! Mars ne’er received such a tipple from the hands of Ganymede. Breakfast was announced, and what a breakfast!”

A decade and a half earlier, Senator Henry Clay had introduced the beverage to the Round Robin Bar in Washington DC. So, ladies and gentlemen frost up your julep cups with his 1865 recipe taken directly from his diary itself:

“The mint leaves, fresh and tender, should be pressed against a coin-silver goblet with the back of a silver spoon. Only bruise the leaves gently and then remove them from the goblet. Half fill with cracked ice. Mellow bourbon, aged in oaken barrels, is poured from the jigger and allowed to slide slowly through the cracked ice. In another receptacle, granulated sugar is slowly mixed into chilled limestone water to make a silvery mixture as smooth as some rare Egyptian oil, then poured on top of the ice. While beads of moisture gather on the burnished exterior of the silver goblet, garnish the brim of the goblet with the choicest sprigs of mint.”

Like most, if not all, Confederate officers, Albert Sidney Johnston was a true gentleman, devoted husband and a kind father. The soldiers who served under him gave their utmost respect as he was referred to as “one of the most just and considerate to those under his command”. This Confederate general’s personal julep recipe is unique in that it featured catnip leaves; the following is the original recipe of the good general:

“Choose a good-sized catnip leaf, hold it along the side of a water glass and severely bruise it with a spoon. Fill the glass with cracked ice and pour in the whisky, to within a half inch of the top. In another glass filled with water dissolve two teaspoons of sugar. Add enough of this sugar water to top off the glass filled with whisky. Finally, stick in three sprigs of catnip with two to three leaves on each. Do not stir, just sip slowly.”

In an attempt to squash all Dixian identity, after the war, we experienced high taxes on our brandy during Reconstruction I (Reconstruction II being 1965 to the present day). As a consequence, bourbon quickly became the standard liquor in the julep. Back in those days, glass was expensive as it had to be  hand-blown, you would have taken your flask to the local saloon where it was filled directly from the barrel.

Simon Buckner Jr, the son of Confederate General Simon Bolivar Buckner, shares his own poignant recipe:

“A mint julep is not a product of a formula. It is a ceremony and must be performed by a gentleman possessing a true sense of the artistic, a deep reverence for the ingredients and a proper appreciation of the occasion. It is a rite that must not be entrusted to a novice, a statistician NOR A YANKEE. It is a heritage of the Old South, and emblem of hospitality, and a vehicle in which noble minds can travel together upon the flower-strewn paths of a happy and congenial thought. So far as the mere mechanics of the operation are concerned, the procedure, stripped of its ceremonial embellishments, can be described as follows: Go to a spring where cool, crystal-clear water bubbles from under a bank of dew-washed ferns. In a consecrated vessel, dip up a little water at the source. Follow the stream thru its banks of green moss and wild flowers until it broadens and trickles thru beds of mint growing in aromatic profusion and waving softly in the summer breeze. Gather the sweetest and tenderest shoots and gently carry them home. Go to the sideboard and select a decanter of Kentucky Bourbon distilled by a master hand, mellowed with age, yet still vigorous and inspiring. An ancestral sugar bowl, a row of silver goblets, some spoons and some ice and you are ready to start. Into a canvas bag pound twice as much ice as you think you will need. Make it fine as snow, keep it dry and do not allow it to degenerate into slush. Into each goblet, put a slightly heaping teaspoonful of granulated sugar, barely cover this with spring water and slightly bruise one mint leaf into this, leaving the spoon in the goblet. Then pour elixir from the decanter until the goblets are about one-fourth full. Fill the goblets with snowy ice, sprinkling in a small amount of sugar as you fill. Wipe the outside of the goblets dry, and embellish copiously with mint. Then comes the delicate and important operation of frosting. By proper manipulation of the spoon, the ingredients are circulated and blended until nature, wishing to take a further hand and add another of its beautiful phenomena, encrusts the whole in a glistening coat of white frost. Thus harmoniously blended by the deft touches of a skilled hand, you have a beverage eminently appropriate for honorable men and beautiful women. When all is ready, assemble your guests on the porch or in the garden where the aroma of the juleps will rise heavenward and make the birds sing. Propose a worthy toast, raise the goblets to your lips, bury your nose in the mint, inhale a deep breath of its fragrance and sip the nectar of the gods. Being overcome with thirst, I can write no further.”

In preparing the mint julep, my personal favorite alcohol of choice is peach brandy as its sweetness brings out the refreshing flavor of the mint. I also prefer mint over catnip leaves, although they are both of the same family with similar taste in syrup form, the former provides a more fragrant smell. The technique known as “McNabbing”  or crushing the leaves with a mortar and pestle then briefly heating the concoction water is a must to create a heartier syrup of utmost taste.

In practice, you’ll find the mint julep shared with close friends to be much more than just a drink; it’s even more than the zenith of Southern hospitality. If you take one thing from this article remember this: the mint julep is the “ambrosia of Achilles” to the Dixian. As ambrosia brought immortality to mere mortals of ancient Greek legend. So too will partaking of the mint julep amidst close family, friends and comrades along with a constant, yet healthy, dose of Southern Identity bring forth that same perpetuity for the Dixian people.

So here’s to an enduring Dixie forevermore……and cheers!

***sips a mint julep from his silver chalice***

Article by Tex Wood; Graphics by Roux Desjardins

Old times are not forgotten