All that is needed to make a traditional Columbus mint julep is sugar water in which mint leaves have be bruised, mint, good bourbon, ice, a tablespoon and a silver goblet. Photo by: Courtesy photo
January 18, 2014 10:55:32 PM
January may be a strange time to bring up the mint julep but maybe it makes a good forerunner to springtime and warmer weather.
Recently, I hosted some out of town visitors to a mint julep tasting and this month's issue of Gardens & Guns Magazine had an article on mint juleps with a cover photograph of a mint-garnished frosted julep cup. All of that brought to mind the deep rooted heritage of mint juleps in Columbus.
The magazine article provides a recipe for what it calls a historically made antebellum version of the "Southern julep." It contains not whiskey but cognac and rum mixed with "sorghum syrup," powdered sugar and of course mint, but spearmint. Though I am sure it is a julep that many people enjoy it is not the one I grew up with.
The julep I have always known is a light, refreshing, not-too-sweet drink of which it is best to have only one.
When I left home to go to Ole Miss my grandmother informed me that if I was going to "the University" (though she had attended Newcomb College rather than Ole Miss) I most know how to make "a proper mint Julep." The recipe she gave me, the Whitehall Mint Julep, was the same one she had given Eudora Welty in a 1939 interview and which still often appears in books and national publications, such as USA Today. It is a recipe in which sugar water and mint are whispered over a goblet filled with bourbon and crushed ice.
So what is the traditional mint julep as served in Columbus? Is a sweet syrupy concoction or a "hold your breath" drink for lovers of fine whisky. Over the years I have become the repository for family cookbooks, many over 100 years old and one even dating to 1825. With ancestors having arrived in Lowndes County from Alabama, Virginia and Georgia during the 1830s, the cookbooks provide insight into what food and drink was popular in early Columbus.
Interestingly the oldest cookbooks that I have fail to mention mint juleps. Actually out of 14 cookbooks that are more than 100 years old only one mentions a mint julep. Milk punch, eggnog, wines, beer and brandy were all popular but even an 1875 Kentucky cookbook left out mint juleps.
To delve into recipes used prior to my family's arrival in Mississippi I turned to a 1942 Colonial Williamsburg Cookbook. It contains an article titled "To Make a True Mint Julep." After a review of the history of mint Juleps in Virginia, it recommends using a glass tumbler or a silver goblet and cautions against using "too much sugar" or "too little whisky." The Virginia recipe is remarkably like the old family recipe that had been passed down to my grandmother and then to me.
The oldest mint Julep recipe that I found in a cookbook used in Columbus was in Sally Billups' copy of Verstille's Southern Cookery published in 1866. It's recipe was simply:
Sweeten a glass of water, and add whisky or brandy to the taste; drop in two or three sprigs of mint and a lump of ice; it is then ready to drink.
My grandmother's recipe for the "Whitehall Mint Julep" would dated back at least to the late 1800s, if not earlier, and seems in keeping with the Virginia and 1866 recipe. She had also said that though people now often serve the drink in a julep cup, a silver goblet was the traditional vessel in which to serve a mint julep. Her old family recipe which was published by Eudora Welty in 1939 was:
Whitehall Mint Julep
Dissolve 1/2 lump of sugar in 1 tablespoon of water. Bruise 1 mint leaf between your fingers in the water, then remove the leaf. Fill a silver goblet with crushed ice and add the tablespoon of mint and sugar water. Then fill the goblet with good bourbon. (I prefer Old Rip Van Winkle.) Put in a sprig of mint and let stand until the goblet is frosted. Then "serve rapidly." As Welty said in conclusion, "Who could ask for anything more?"
What is the proper mint julep? Well everyone who enjoys them has their favorite recipe. However, the Whitehall Mint Julep tracks the old recipes that were used in Columbus during the 1800s and is probably the traditional Columbus recipe from antebellum times.
Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at firstname.lastname@example.org.