The mint julep cocktail, traditionally served in a frosted silver tumbler, is the quintessential and historic drink of the American South. “They say that you may always know the grave of a Virginian as, from the quantity of julep he has drunk, mint invariably springs up where he has been buried,” wrote British seaman and novelist Captain Frederick Marryat in his 1839 Diary in America. Today, the drink is perhaps most associated with Kentucky, because some 80,000 mint juleps are served annually during the Kentucky Derby, using more than 150 bushels of mint.
The recipe is a matter of controversy. Washington Irving and Charles Dickens supposedly argued over it in 1842. Gourmet magazine carried a five-year-long readership debate on the subject from 1963 to 1968, while other magazines reported on Vietnam or the civil rights movement.
Some aficionados aver that the drink should be mixed with fresh mint leaves, while others prefer to make up a mint extract or syrup ahead of time. This Yankee, a mint lover, prefers the fresher version.
Leah A. Zeldes is food editor of Chicago’s Lerner Newspapers.
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