This week, in our series on the history of the Mint Julep, Program Director Brian Cushing takes us through the process of making a “sling”, an early version of what we now think of as the mint julep. Take it away, Brian!
In general, we will be working off of original mint julep recipes in this series but to get the story kicked off, I am going to rely completely on David Wondrich’s excellent research presented in his book, Imbibe: a cornerstone of information currently available on the evolution of spirits and what people did with the in North America.
Calling a recreational beverage a “mint julep” started off as a joke in the later middle part of the 18th Century, right around the time the original owner of Locust Grove, William Croghan, was making it to America from Ireland and getting started. The word “julep” had been used to refer to medicinal concoctions for centuries and what started being called a “mint julep” at that point was really a minty “sling,” an early form of individual cocktail (vs. the popular flowing bowls of punch at the time, a prevailing method for several individuals to partake of spirits made into a tantalizing and palatable form). Aiding the joke was that the essence of mint leaves was understood to be medicinal and could be extracted with alcohol (they are also, of course, very pleasant to the senses).
Wondrich cited an account by none other than Dr. Benjamin Rush of how he observed slings being made (by an acquaintance who eventually drank himself to death): equal parts rum and water with some sugar.
While his unfortunate acquaintance used rum, any spirit was a candidate for a sling, with gin being very common and brandy occupying a more prominent place in American spirit culture at the time. Spirits were often more commonly used in an unaged, clear (or “white”) form at the time. I happened to have some high proof, white brandy on hand so I started with that for this attempt to recreate what these early juleps might have been like. You can find similar products in your local liquor store today, including from Louisville based Copper and Kings, a Locust Grove Farm Distillery Project sponsor. Since part of the joke may have been alcohol’s ability to extract the essence from the mint leaves, I decided to crush some mint leaves and let them steep in 6 oz of the brandy for a few days.
When the time came to make the drink, I went with Wondrich’s recommendation of 1 tsp. of sugar per 2 oz. of spirit. So, since I had 6 oz. of spirit, I dissolved 3 tsp. of sugar in 6 oz. of room temperature water. Early cocktail recipes often involve sugar dissolved in water instead of simple syrup; it is important to dissolve the quantity of sugar in the quantity of water at room temperature that the recipe calls for first; it will not want to dissolve in spirit and will be problematic in cold water.
Then I strained the leaves from the spirit, added it to the sugar and water, mixed, and dispensed into glasses. For good measure, I placed a couple of mint stalks into each glass, agitated slightly in my hands first to start getting the scent released.
Being used to the magic of a classic mint julep, I was prepared for a disappointment, but actually found it very pleasant, mellow, and maybe a little too easy to drink. One possible origin of the term “sling” that Wondrich points out is the ease at which it is slinged back. You may notice that a crucial element of the mint julep is missing here- ice! It would begin to be incorporated in the 19th Century and by the time the mint julep became no longer a joke but a drink of its own, a staple. In our next installment, we will have made it all the way to 1840 when the joke is over, the julep is getting serious, and the results will be wonders that you won’t want to turn loose of no matter how much you love the classic mint julep!
Cheers, y’all! Stay with us next week as the joke is over, and the julep is getting serious in the 1840s!