A brief literary history of cocktails: The Mint Julep

Since the time of Homeric libation rituals and Plato’s wine-soaked Dionysian revels, alcohol has been an abiding fixture in the works and lives of many of our greatest writers, poets and philosophers. Their liquid inspiration and sustenance—to say nothing of ruin—has played a surprisingly major role in the development of literary history. Our new series of posts will explore both famous and lesser known literary and cultural intersections with alcohol. Recipes included at bottom.

The Mint Julep

Conjuring up, as it does, hot Southern languor and, more than anything, a Tennessee Williams kind of ambiance, it might be a surprise to many that the mint julep has its origins in the Arabic and Mediterranean world. Initially based on a recipe combining rose petals and water, a julab (Arabic) was a non-alcoholic drink believed to contain certain life-enhancing properties. As word of the drink spread, the concoction crossed from Syria and Palestine to the Mediterranean, where rose water was replaced with fresh mint.

By the time it had reached Europe, the recipe had been subject to all kinds of alcoholic experimentation, and it was only matter of time before it came to the United States and received—with the help of “good American whiskey”—its definitive form.

Ever since, the Mint Julep has been an iconic mainstay in the American South and has been firmly lodged in the popular imagination of the Southern lifestyle. It is a natural part of the mise-en-scene of the Southern Gothic and is, in fact, the “official” drink of the Kentucky Derby, where it is annually doled out by the tens of thousands (see Hunter S. Thompson’s celebrated The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved,” which captures the Mint Julep’s presence with fantastically lurid detail).

It should also be no surprise that the Mint Julep was William Faulkner’s drink of choice. Faulkner, a Southern writer par excellence, was himself no stranger to alcohol and was notorious for heroic month-long benders between novels, and the whiskey-haze in which he ended his career, moonlighting as a screenwriter in 1940s Hollywood (incidentally, another pit of decadence and depravity, where he was able to write both The Big Sleep and To Have and Have Not).

 When he wasn’t slugging back bourbon straight, Faulkner would famously have his Mint Juleps by his side as he wrote some of the most central and lasting creations of 20th century American literature (The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying and Absalom, Absalom, to name a few).

William Faulkner lounging with pipe

The Mint Julep makes another odd cameo in American history, playing a significant role in a major libel case Theodore Roosevelt brought against The Iron Ore, a local rag from Ishpeming, Michigan. Roosevelt, believed by many to be a major lush, was accused by the paper’s editors of being mostly drunk during his presidential tenure. In what must have been his generation’s “I did not have sexual relations with that woman,” Roosevelt proudly proclaimed that, “I have never been drunk or in the slightest degree under the influence of liquor… I never drank a cocktail or a highball in my life.” It was only over the course of the trial that he conceded to enjoying “a glass of champagne when protocol demanded it,” and, while under similar duress, the occasional glass of wine and brandy. Under mounting pressure, he finally copped to the more sordid charge of throwing back a good Mint Julep now and then.  

Faulkner’s mint julep recipe:

3 oz whiskey

1 tsp sugar, 

ice, and a sprig or two of crushed mint

(preferably served muddled).

With a seemingly appropriate flourish, Faulkner preferred to drink them—stiff, of course—from the same frosty metal cup. The more faint of heart may add ½ oz of simple syrup or a splash of club soda, extra ice and sugar.