The word "julep" dates back more than 1,000 years to 10th-century Persia, where it originally was used to describe any medicine taken with sweetened water. This usage continued well into the 1700s (or, perhaps, 1964 when Mary Poppins came out) when it came to describe any alcohol taken with sweetened water.
The Mint Julep is a relatively simple deviation on that recipe—just add mint!—and yet it remains the subject of considerable debate.
There's the bourbon, which is a matter of taste.
There's the mint itself, which is muddled in the glass in the very first step. Some say to muddle it gently and then throw it out—its oils are all that the drink requires—while others leave the mint in for aesthetic purposes.
There's the sweetener. "Historically, the Mint Julep was made with powdered sugar and a splash of water," says Jeff Rowe, bartender at Hodge's. "But I use simple syrup because it's basically the same thing."
There's the glassware, a $20 silver-plated cup, which seems excessive. (Don't worry, a rocks glass will do just fine.)
And then there's the age-old debate about when to drink it. For some, the Mint Julep is the quintessential summer drink. For others, the answer to that question can only be answered with another question: Is the Kentucky Derby happening today?
For Will Hollingsworth, bartender at Lolita and proprietor of the forthcoming Spotted Owl Bar, both in Tremont, ordering a Mint Julep on any old Thursday is at best a violation of our social contract and at worst an affront to humanity.
"Part of what's cool about drinking is the heritage, and without certain traditions in place that heritage is lost," says Hollingsworth. To him, the point of drinking is to feel alive and make memories with your friends, and anything that allows us to unite and do that is necessarily a noble pursuit. And we unite around the Mint Julep on Derby Day. "The Mint Julep is special because we say it's special. Ruth's Chris Steakhouse just debuted a new bar menu that is essentially seven different Mint Juleps. It's worth the sacrifice of not drinking juleps every day for a julep to still mean something."
Back at Hodge's, Rowe stands over a giant glass jar filled with strawberries and adds bottle after liter-sized bottle of Woodford Reserve. He's working on the Frosty Strawberry Mint Julep, an infused drink that he created specifically for the new summer menu, which will roll out shortly.
"I respect the tradition," he says. "I just wanted to give people something fun to drink on the patio this summer."
It's hard to argue with either of them.
Recipe: Hodge’s Frothy Strawberry Mint Julep
2 ounces strawberry-infused Woodford Reserve bourbon*
1/2 ounce simple syrup **
6-7 mint leaves
1 strawberry, halved
1 egg white
*To make strawberry-infused bourbon, clean and cut a half-pint of strawberries and submerge them in a bourbon-filled mason jar for 1 week, shaking daily. Strain out the solids.
**To make simple syrup, dissolve 1 cup sugar into 1 cup water over moderate heat.
Add simple syrup and half a strawberry to a rocks glass and muddle. Add the mint leaves and press, but don’t muddle. Pack the rest of the glass with enough crushed ice so that it extends above the rim of the glass like a snow cone.
Shake the strawberry-infused bourbon and egg white in a Boston shaker filled with ice for 1-2 minutes. Strain into the rocks glass and garnish with a sprig of mint.