All Dressed Up, and the Drink is the Show

Mint juleps whet whistles sip after historical sip.


She’s the undisputed diva of drinks. Served in a silver cup, she’s minty sweet, icy cold, and strong all at once. She is the mint julep, and her pedigree is pure Virginia. We see you, Kentucky, but she’s ours.

Mint juleps were first noted by a traveler in a 1787 issue of American Museum magazine, who wrote: “The Virginian rises in the morning, about six o’clock. He then drinks a julap [sic], made of rum, water and sugar, but very strong.” Early juleps were indeed made of rum, favored at the time, although the new nation’s palate was quickly turning toward whiskey.

What’s probably most surprising is that a julep was thought of as a pre-breakfast drink.

In 1803, Englishman John Davis further defined the julep as a “dram of spiritous liquor that has mint in it, taken by Virginians in the morning,” in his Travels of Four Years and a Half in the United States of America.

By 1808 the drink was popularized at The White, a resort in White Sulphur Springs (then part of Virginia), known as the place to socialize and sip on “a mint julep made with a hailstorm [of ice] around it.” Later known as The Old White, the resort is now The Greenbrier.

Ingredients in these early mint juleps were fluid; one could make it with brandy, rum, bourbon or other whiskey, or gin. Mint was essential, but sometimes pineapple and strawberries were thrown into the mix. However, the glacial amount of ice necessary never wavered.

By the mid-19th century, legendary Richmond bartender John Dabney set the mint julep standard. Born as a slave around 1824 in Hanover County, Dabney was a culinary force. A successful 19th-century caterer and bartender to Virginia’s elite, Dabney served his mint julep to the then-Prince of Wales during a tour of the nation.

Six years after Dabney’s passing in June of 1900, General Dabney H. Maury of Richmond related John Dabney’s mint julep recipe in The New Lucile Cook Book: “Crushed ice, as much as you can pack it in, and sugar, mint, bruised and put in with the ice, then your good whiskey, and the top surmounted by more mint, a strawberry, a cherry, a slice of pineapple, or, as John expressed it, ‘any other fixings you like.’”

Today, while less flashy, mint juleps are no less fabulous. Oh, and that little horse race they have in May at Churchill Downs in Kentucky? The mint julep did not become the official drink at the Derby until 1938, some 146 years after Kentucky broke from Virginia to become its own state.


At Middleburg’s Goodstone Inn, head bartender Stuart Brennen uses fresh mint leaves from the kitchen garden to make the simple syrup first and then the julep.

Mint Simple Syrup

  • 1 cup white sugar
  • 1 cup hot water
  • 1 cup fresh mint leaves, stems removed

Add sugar and hot water to a glass container and gently stir until clear. Once cooled, pour the prepared syrup over fresh mint leaves in a separate glass container. Let steep for four to five days. Once the syrup reaches the desired mint flavor, strain to remove mint leaves, then seal and store in the refrigerator for up to six months.

Mint Julep

  • Fresh mint leaves (extra for garnish) Ice
  • 2 ounces Virginia bourbon; Stuart prefers Ironclad
  • Distillery or Reservoir Distillery
  • Mint simple syrup

Fill a collins glass with ice and 4-6 fresh mint leaves. Pour ice and mint into a cocktail shaker and muddle together, crushing the ice. Pour mixture back into the glass and add 2 ounces of Virginia bourbon. Fill the remainder of the glass with mint simple syrup. Return to the shaker and back into the glass to mix. Garnish with fresh mint and serve with a straw.

This article originally appeared in the June 2022 issue.

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