Next month on May 7 the annual Kentucky Derby will be run in Louisville, Kentucky, and as part of the festivities ladies in pastel dresses and feathered hats and gentlemen in bright plaids or seersucker blazers will be sipping (or maybe gulping, depending on the circumstances) ample quanties of an iced beverage called a Mint Julep. Of course everyone knows that a “derby” is a horse race named in honor of Edward Stanley, the 12th Earl of Derby (1752-1834), who founded the English (now Epsom) Derby. He also got a hat named for him. But what is the origin of a “julep”?
It’s an Old French word of the 14th century, meaning a syrupy liquid in which medicine is delivered, derived from medieval latin julapium, Arabic julab, and Persian gulab, meaning a “sweet drink.” In 1787, Americans latched on to this word to describe a concoction made with Bourbon whiskey, sugar, and fresh mint leaves. It’s supposed to be served in a silver cup with shaved ice.
The Bard of Buffalo Bayou finds mint juleps are a tad too sweet for his taste, and he prefers them without the sugar, or the mint, or the ice, or the silver cup.
I’d much rather have a cold mint julep
Than a lily or a rose or an old Dutch tulip.