Mint Conditioned: Why Mojitos and Juleps Taste Like Spring

When I was a kid, warm weather arrived with mint in the air and on my tongue. Both houses that I lived in growing up were surrounded by spearmint bushes, and I acquired the habit of plucking a few sprigs on my way in or out. I loved the slight fuzz on the leaves and the peppery zing in my mouth.

So maybe it is no surprise that, as an adult, when the landscape starts to bloom and green, my beverages of choice include two mentholated cocktails. Mint juleps and mojitos are distant cousins, culturally—one a hallmark of Dixie aristocracy, inescapably entwined with the Kentucky Derby, the other a Cuban concoction redolent of sugar-cane fields and endorsed by Ernest Hemingway. But stylistically, they have a lot in common. They are the two best-known drinks that use mint leaves as an actual ingredient, rather than a garnish. Both add sugar to already-sweet base liquors (bourbon for the julep, white rum in mojitos), but, made well, are sprightly rather than cloying. And both take some effort to prepare, so that even in the rare bar that actually stocks mint leaves, you might get a sigh from a harried bartender if you order one. Which is all the more reason to make them at home.

Some history: As the modifier in the name suggests, a mint julep is just one of many possible kinds of juleps. Don't tell this to the Kentucky Colonels, but "julep" descends from Arabic and Persian words for "rose water," and in Colonial America it referred to any number of ostensibly medicinal mixtures of liquor and sugar. The first recorded reference to a julep flavored with mint—long considered a healing herb—comes in 1803, as "a dram of spirituous liquor that has mint steeped in it, taken by Virginians of a morning." Tradition has it that Kentucky Sen. Henry Clay introduced the drink to Washington society in the early 19th century, helping to assure its association with his home state.

There are murky reports of juleps as part of horse-racing culture in the Bluegrass State going back to 1816, but it is indisputable that from 1938 on, the Kentucky Derby has promoted both the drink and its distinctive silver cups. Despite all that, numerous testimonials—including one from a cocktail-savvy friend of mine—have declared New Orleans bartender Chris McMillian the nation's champion julep-maker. Unlike his Louisville colleagues, who trot the drink out one weekend in May, McMillian serves it year-round at the Ritz-Carlton hotel.

The mojito comes with its own colorful past. It may or may not descend from a 16th-century drink called El Draque, in honor of Sir Francis Drake, and may also have roots in the African slave culture of Cuban sugar-cane plantations. Some version of it was originally made from aguardiente, a harsh-tasting precursor of rum, with lime, sugar, and mint presumably helping to take the edge off. With the spread of rum production in the 17th and 18th centuries, the mojito adapted and by the 1800s it was one of Cuba's standard drinks. Its popularity in the U.S. has waxed and waned from the 1890s on, in concert with other aspects of Cuban culture. Its most recent resurgence coincided with the 1990s popularity of the Buena Vista Social Club albums, though it has also benefited from the classic-cocktail boom of the past decade.

Like many great drinks, juleps and mojitos come in a variety of more and less "authentic" guises, and you can find dozens of recipes for them in cocktail books and online. In both cases, there are disagreements about how to handle the mint and sugar. The standard approach to both involves muddling a goodly number of mint leaves, say eight to 10, in the bottom of a glass. The idea here is just to bruise them, releasing their oil, not shred them. Slapping them in the palm of your hand will help. The traditional sweetener in juleps is confectioners sugar, which is what Chris McMillian uses, while mojitos are a cane-sugar drink. But for convenience, I just use simple syrup in both of them. How much depends on how sweet you like your drinks, but two to three tablespoons should suffice. If you want to boost your mint quotient, you can steep mint leaves in the syrup itself, while it cools.

For mojitos, you also want to muddle a few lime wedges along with the mint and sugar. Then you add your crushed ice, bourbon or rum (plus a splash of club soda for mojitos), and garnish with a few more mint leaves and/or lime wedges. The resulting drinks should look, smell, and taste like a spring garden, full of green leaves and herbal razzmatazz.

A note of caution: Juleps and mojitos are disarmingly easy to drink, but they are stronger than they seem. Their multi-step preparation is something of a built-in speed bump against overconsumption. If you find yourself getting more muddled than the mint as you try to remember what goes in when and how, it is best to call it a night. (Or, if you're Hemingway, an afternoon.)