Without muddling, there can be no mint julep. This is the process by which mint is smashed with an implement called a muddler — a wooden or metal stick with a knob at one end — so as to release the strong flavors of the fresh herb, including the small amount of oil that gives the beverage its zip. In a mint julep any kind of mint can be used, with spearmint preferred in the most traditional recipes. The muddling is done in the bottom of the glass with a teaspoon or two of sugar and a little squirt of water. Next crushed ice is added while swirling with a swizzle stick; then the bourbon whiskey is poured in and stirred. The result is a transcendent cocktail, with a little bit of sweetness, but not too much, and a fragrant odor of mint and barrel-aged whiskey that climbs right up your nose with a woody savor as you take a first refreshing sip.
Superstar mixologist and drinking scholar Jerry Thomas (1830-1885), who once worked in bars along the Bowery and was nicknamed "Professor," took a particular interest in the julep, indicating it was already wildly popular during his time. The drink can be traced to 1803 London, when it appeared in a book by John Davis in recipe form; but even before that, it was a standard way to drink bourbon in colonial Virginia a half-century before. In fact, the julep probably dates to the days when bourbon whiskey was first distilled, using rye instead of corn, possibly in Kentucky. The drink was originally considered medicine. Whoever invented the julep, by the time Jerry Thomas got his hands on it just before the Civil War there were already multiple versions; he includes five in his epic Bar-Tender’s Guide (1862).
The mint julep is a drink long associated with the American South, where it is considered a great way to cool down in summer, with its excess of crushed ice (which increases the surface area that comes in contact with the beverage, and thus hastens the cooling) and its refreshing dose of mint, which accelerates the cooling sensation. In fact, the mint julep is the official cocktail of the Kentucky Derby, though this wasn’t officially declared until 1938. Any way you look at it, there’s no better cocktail than the julep, and even in cold weather it dispels the doldrums of winter with the promise of spring’s early arrival.