Mint Julep a la Dabney

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The Mint Julep is a classic cocktail perfect for a warm day. This mint julep recipe is created and served the forgotten 'champion' way to celebrate the Black bartenders who perfected and mastered the Mint Julep to make it the popular Derby Day cocktail it is today.

Join me in celebrating Juneteenth by checking out the list of contributors to the 2021 Juneteenth Virtual Cookout down below. 40+ black creators contributed to this collaborative menu as a Freedom Day tribute. Juneteenth marks our country’s second independence day, the final emancipation of those enslaved in the US back in 1865. Join in, share, and help us continue the legacy of celebrating progress. Additionally, you can easily follow each participant by using the hashtag #JuneteenthCookout2021 on Instagram.

Last year, Juneteenth exploded into the mainstream consciousness and I got a ton of readers and followers thanking me for teaching about America's hidden history, especially through food.

Now, for Juneteenth we usually drink red drinks, symbolizing the blood shed throughout the suffering from colonization and slavery, but I figured we should enjoy another that is also part of Black history!

pinterest pin for hailstorm mint julep a la dabney

And let me tell you how surprised I was that none of my food blogging peers had the true history about how Black people, specifically Black mixologists, created and popularized the Mint Julep.

So this Juneteenth, I'm going to teach you history behind the beloved Derby party drink and give you the ultimate guide on how to create the drink so delicious and beautiful that the bartenders who made them would gain rapport with princes and presidents. It's perfect for these hot summer days and evenings and it will definitely make everyone you serve one to give you a round of applause.

Jump to:

The Origins of the Julep

So the term 'julep' actually comes from the Arabic areas of the world. The word comes from Spanish Arabic 'julepe' which is derived from the Persian Arabic term 'gulab', which is a drink made with sweetened water and rose petals known to lift the spirits and give a better life, so I suppose that is why the julep started as a medication.

The English created a drink they called the 'julep', a which made its way to the early U.S with colonizers, which was a crackpot medicine made with alcohol, herbs, and camphor (we now know that camphor taken orally can cause breathing problems, seizures, and death).

These juleps weren't the mint juleps we all know as the signature drink of the Kentucky derby. They were medications, and even when Virginians had warped the medicinal julep to be a simple recipe of half water/half liquor (usually a low quality, high proof rum) they'd shoot it back quickly with a sprig of mint and a lump or two of sugar to cut down on the bite of the low quality liquor they'd call 'kill devils', the drinks were more like their version of a double shot of espresso in the morning before work.

The first written mention of a mint julep as a refreshing beverage was in the 18th century at Wag-Wam Gardens' menu for guests in Norfolk, Virginia, called the Iced Julip...and we know that a slave owner was not shaving ice, learning culinary skills (they usually sent their enslaved servants to be taught by chefs), or creating cocktails for guests.

Pre-Prohibition Mint Juleps

The beginning of the mint julep as a prized drink started in the bars tended by free and enslaved Black men. According to historians, the classic mint julep recipe was created by either Cato Alexander or John Dabney, two Black bartenders who were born enslaved but bought their own freedom and their families' freedoms through bartending.

Cato Alexander, the Father of Mixology, was well known in the 1810's to the 1850's for serving many different types of juleps made with the finest cognacs and brandy just outside New York City, where Manhattan now resides, in his own tavern called Cato's. He was also known for his mixology skills, becoming famous for milk punches, juleps, and his own blend of Virginia eggnog.

a photo of Cato Alexander

No, Jerry Thomas did not create the cocktail nor is he the 'father of mixology'. That was actually Cato Alexander, whose drinks were the first outside of the U.S. to be known as 'cocktails' 20-30 years before Jerry Thomas was born.

While Cato's exact birthplace in 1780 is unknown --though many believe he was born in New York and was freed in 1799 from New York's controversial slavery abolition law-- he brought many Southern influences into his cocktail creations, including winter favorite eggnog. He was able to make an inexpensive version for the average guest since eggs and cream were expensive items, as well as the classic version for his elite clientele.

Cato gained great respect from many white elites who preferred to frequent Cato's Tavern for the bright ambiance and his impeccable service. Novels and newspapers quote William Dunlap, a pioneer of American Theater: "Who has not heard of Cato Alexander? Not to know Cato’s is not to know the world."

John Dabney and the Julep a la Dabney

I'll go on a limb and put money down to say that John Dabney is the reason why Mint Juleps were not only revered in the pre-Civil War times, but he is the reason why it has become a Southern icon. He brought mint juleps to the next level.

a side view of mint julep with lots of fresh berries and mint over crushed ice

John Dabney was basically the bartending king of Richmond, VA. Born enslaved, he worked at a hotel in Richmond after jockeying horses. He was taught different cuisines by many chefs but he was best known for his amazingly decorated mint juleps, which he often called hailstorm juleps because of the shaved or crushed iced, canvasback duck, and terrapin stew.

He was able to free his mother and pregnant wife from slavery before the Civil War, and still paid back the loan he had for his own freedom after the War (and subsequent freedom) from Cora Williamson DeJarnette, his now ex-enslaver. This earned him a reputation as a man of high morals, character, and integrity, and he was able to secure credit from the pick of the banks of Richmond.

the only known photo of John Dabney

He and his wife bought much real estate and opened a very successful restaurant as Richmond was being rebuilt after the Civil War.

Mint Juleps a la Dabney were created in silver cups with shaved ice piled high. The new icebox made ice available for those hot southern nights, and John would use giant silver cups (sometimes he would use the silver trophy cups patrons would award him with for his 'champion juleps') and muddle sugar and mint with a splash of water, then use really good peach or apple brandy (when brandy fell out of use after the civil war, he would use excellent cognac or Caribbean rum, since dairy and rum from the Caribbean was now plentiful) then pile high the shaved or crushed ice.

He would then decorate the juleps with beautiful fruits, berries, and edible flowers!

One account described them as, "a giant, multi-serving silver cup topped with a one foot tall pyramid of ice, ice-encrusted sides, and a cornucopia of fruits sticking to the ice in stunning artistic designs."

close up view of blackberries, mint sprigs, and strawberries on top of a mint julep

His juleps were so famous that the Prince of Wales (aka Edward VII), on visit to the United States of America in October of 1860, not only visited his bar to try a julep, but he came back before he left the country to have another. That's how big John Dabney and his mint juleps were. In fact, he and his skills were so highly regarded and in-demand that he and his mixology skills were fully booked every summer in high end resorts and in the homes of the upper class.

The Southern Dream Marketing Ploy -- The Post-Civil War Mint Julep of Today

After the Civil War ravaged the South to a shell of what it was and many of the first famed Black mixologists passed away, the mint julep began to fade away in the early 20th century. Fancy Northerner drinks like the Manhattan and martini were gaining popularity, and it seemed that Prohibition was going to completely lay waste to the Mint Julep and its rich history.

Once prohibition was repealed, Kentucky was trying to bring their bourbon whiskey industry back to life. Southern whiskey was trying to market off of romanticized Antebellum South nostalgia of pre-war times using intensely racist imagery. The most popular marketing ploy being Irvin S. Cobb’s Own Recipe Book,written in 1936, which was not only full of bourbon oriented Southern drink recipes but also deeply offensive and racist imagery showcasing affluent white slavers and plantation owners and Black people serving them. These books were sold in liquor stores across the country.

In 1938, the mint julep because the official drink of the Kentucky Derby, cashing in on the Gone with the Wind craze and the heavily marketed Antebellum South nostalgia sweeping the nation at the time. And the most popular drink of the pre-war South? The mint julep...

...but now made with Kentucky Bourbon, of course!

The bourbon whisky industry was now booming and the Mint Julep, the elitist drink from before the war, was the perfect drink to make spectators at the sporting event feel as if they could be the Southern Elite pre-war in their seersuckers and big hats...at least for derby weekend.

two kentucky derby style mint juleps garnished with mint sprigs

But unfortunately with this new version and new audience, the history of the Mint Julep along with the Black mixologists who created and perfected them with beautiful artistry were whitewashed away for a fabricated, romanticized, elitist ideal of the old South.

Now we know the mint julep as one of the trademarks of Churchill Downs, becoming one of the most searched for drinks the week before the first Saturday of May and using about 10,000 gallons of the best bourbon and 1,000 pounds of fresh mint leaves.

How to Make a Mint Julep a la Dabney

Everyone has a recipe for Mint Juleps (including me) but I have yet to see my blogging counterparts recreate the Hailstorm Mint Julep a la Dabney for the home cook/mixologist. So I found a recipe that John Dabney's son, Wendell, had written down from his father's bar.

Ingredients and Instructions

Many sprigs of mint. A few of these fresh mint leaves will be muddled with sugar and water at the bottom of your silver julep cup. You can also use a bar spoon to smash and press the mint and sugar together if you don't have a cocktail muddler. You don't want a bruised mint leaf situation going on, you just want the oils released.

overhead view of muddled mint in a julep cup

Pulverized granulated sugar. This is different from powdered sugar or confectioners' sugar. Powdered sugar has added starch, which will cause your drink to become thick and syrupy. Pulverized sugar is simply sugar that's been blitzed in the food processor (you can totally use a mini or small food processor for this) until it's almost a powder. Really simple. You can also use turbinado sugar, which can give a richer flavor to your drink.

A little splash of water. This is to make our makeshift mint simple syrup mix with the bourbon. Because this is a strong drink, Dabney would decide on how sweet it needed to be based off the volume of the cup.

brandy being poured into a mint julep base

Peach Brandy. I'll go ahead and say to use your brown liquor of choice here, so long as it's good quality. Dabney would use brandy pre-civil war but switched to cognac or dark rum after the war since brandy was scarce. You can use your favorite bourbon or whiskey as well.

Crushed Ice. Yes, it has to be crushed ice. This is easier to make or find than shaving a ton of ice for your drinks. Crush the ice yourself in zip top bags or buy crushed ice at your local grocer or liquor store.

Small pieces of fruit like mandarine segments, pieces of pineapple or peaches, berries, and edible flowers. On mile-high shaved ice pyramids were artistic displays of fruit and edible flowers, served in chilled julep cup with silver straws to make the ultimate mint julep cocktail.

macro shot of fresh blueberries on a hailstorm mint julep

At home, just fill your julep cup (could be a metal cup or a double old-fashioned glass) and fill them up with crushed ice, let the ice dome over the top and cover the ice in berries, fruit, and flowers if you are using them. Make sure they are edible! You can find edible flowers at Whole Foods or florists or on herbs or fruit (like strawberries) in your garden, don't go picking flowers in your neighbor, please.

And that's the history on you make the pre-prohibition, pre-Civil War, internationally celebrated Mint Julep.

For more information on the history of the Mint Julep, John Dabney, Cato Alexander and more, visit these websites:

The History of the Mint Julep - The Tasting Table

Bar History: John Dabney - Happy Hour City

Bar History: Cato Alexander - Happy Hour City

Racism and Cocktail Culture: The Whitewashed History of Your Favorite Drinks - Mic

A History of Black Bartenders- The Bitter Southerner

Dabney, John (ca. 1824-1900) - Encyclopedia Virginia

The Overlooked History of Black Mixology - Vine Pair

More Classic Cocktail Recipes:

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📖 Recipe

Mint Julep a la Dabney

Eden Westbrook
The Mint Julep is a classic cocktail perfect for a warm day. This mint julep recipe is created and served the forgotten 'champion' way from the pre-Prohibition era to celebrate the Black bartenders who perfected and mastered the Mint Julep to make it the popular Derby Day cocktail it is today.
5 from 7 votes
Prep Time 3 minutes
Total Time 3 minutes
Course Drinks
Cuisine African American
Servings 1 Mint Julep
Calories 498 kcal

Ingredients
  

  • 1 tablespoon pulverized granulated sugar
  • 3 tablespoon cold water
  • 4 sprigs mint to muddle
  • 3 oz peach or apple brandy
  • Crushed ice to fill the cup
  • Berries and small pieces of fruit for garnish
  • 4 sprigs mint for garnish
  • Edible flowers for garnish (optional)

Instructions
 

  • Create the julep base by muddling the pulverized sugar, water, and mint together at the bottom of a chilled silver or metal julep or a double old fashioned glass. Muddle just enough to extract the oils from the mint, then remove the mint sprigs from the cup and discard them.
  • Add in the brandy (or cognac, bourbon, rum, or mix of them) and stir well.
  • Pour in the crushed ice until it domes over the cup.
  • Garnish the ice with fruits and flowers. Bury the stems of the mint into the ice to create a bouquet.
  • Serve with a silver or metal straw.

Notes

Recipe adapted from Hailstorm Dabney.

Tips

  • If you don't have a metal julep cup, a double old fashioned glass works as well.
  • Pulverized sugar is NOT the same as powdered sugar, which has starch in it. Pulse granulated sugar in a food processor until it's almost a powder to create superfine sugar.
  • The edible flowers are optional, but please use flowers you know are edible and rinse them before serving.
  • Seasonal fruit and berries work best with this, though tropical fruits were common since they were a sign of wealth.
  • Use apple brandy, Cognac, dark rum, or good bourbon whiskey if you cannot find peach brandy.

Nutrition

Serving: 1gCalories: 498kcalCarbohydrates: 101gProtein: 4gFat: 2gPolyunsaturated Fat: 1gSodium: 17mgFiber: 14gSugar: 74g
Tried this recipe?Leave a star rating and let us know!

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One Comment

  1. Meiko Temple says:

    Wow, I love everything about this piece. So well written, so much history. And a delicious and beautiful execution as a worthy tribute. Well done sis. Keep this up!