Derby Day Drink

05/05/2017     General Furniture & Decorative Arts


The cocktail is truly an American Invention. We'd known punches for centuries, which are mixed beverages served in a communal bowl and dipped out with a ladle. However the single-serving, made-to-order mixed drink didn't arrive until the 19th century in America. The idea of having an alcoholic drink before the dinner hour is also a uniquely American notion. Most everyone is familiar with the widely successful PBS series Downton Abbey. The show follows the transition of an upper class English family from 19th century excess to 20th century practicality during the first quarter of the 20th century. In one episode, Lord Granthum, aka Robert Crawley, asks his mother, the Dowager Countess Violet Crawley, "Can I tempt you to one of these new cocktails?" To which she replies; "No, no, I don't think so. They look far too exciting for so early in the evening." Young Lady Mary Crawley is then offered a cocktail and replies with, "How American."

A cocktail is defined as any mixed drink with a spirit base usually drunk before meals, or any combination of diverse elements, especially a potent one. The word cocktail first appears in print in 1806. The origin of the word is thought to have come from the French word coquetier meaning egg-cup. Around 1795 in New Orleans, a pharmacist named Antoine Peychaud, is known to have held social gatherings at his pharmacy, where he mixed brandy toddies and served them in an egg-cup, which could very well be the name’s origin. The first reference to a cocktail party is in 1928.

The Mint Julep is one of the earliest and most famous of American cocktails. It was introduced by U.S. Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky to Washington, DC, society at the Round Robin Bar in the famous Willard Hotel during his residence in the city. The term "julep" is generally defined as a sweet drink, particularly one used as a vehicle for medicine. The word itself is derived from the Persian word (Golâb), meaning rosewater.

It was originally prescribed for stomach ailments appearing in literature as early as 1784 and again in 1803, this time in reference to a regional remedy used by Virginians for morning stomach illness giving Virginia the credit for the origination of the recipe. Around 1828 there was a famous, almost celebrity, bartender at the City Hotel in New York named Orsamus Willard. At his lobby bar, there was a line at the door for one of his famous concoctions. One of the popular cocktails he served was the Mint Julep. The Mint Julep is written about in at least two published English travel journals. A Mrs. Trollope wrote in her printed 1832 Domestic Matters of the Americans that one of the few things that Americans excelled at was the Whiskey Mint Julep.

The 1862 edition of Bar-Tenders Guide: How to Mix Drinks or The Bon-Vivant's Companion by Jerry Thomas includes five recipes for the Mint Julep using cognac, brandy, gin, whiskey or sparkling Moselle. Of the many variations of the drink including those with rye, rum, or gin, the most popular recipe begins with bourbon or whiskey, in no small part due to the fact that in 19th century rural America and in particular Kentucky, nearly every farm had a still and produced whiskey.

George Washington was in fact the largest producer of whiskey in 18th century America. Most farms produced whiskey averaging about 650 gallons a year, however, George Washington produced about 11,000 gallons of whiskey per year at Mount Vernon earning roughly $120,000 annually. He was also a drinker, often a bottle of Madeira at night, accompanied by rum, punch or beer. It is said that he had to frequently replace his false teeth because they would become stained with brandy and wine. He even named his three favorite hounds, Tipper, Tipsey and Drunkard.

George Washington turned down a salary before taking charge as Commander of the Continental Army agreeing to serve for expenses only. His salary at that time would have been roughly $4,000 per year. Instead he ran up huge personal expenses, what today would be the equivalent of hundreds of thousands of dollars, much of it on fine wines, clothing, and luxury goods. Not surprisingly, Congress declined his offer to work for expenses when he became our first president and insisted he take the Presidential salary of $25,000.

Traditional Mint Juleps are made with four ingredients: crushed mint leaf/ (spearmint), bourbon, sugar, water and crushed ice. They are served in silver or pewter cups and held by the bottom and top edges of the cup only, which lets frost form on the outside and reduces heat transfer from the hand to the cup. The Mint Julep has been promoted by Churchill Downs in association with the Kentucky Derby since 1938 where each year 120,000 juleps are served.

Today sterling silver and coin silver Mint Julep cups are very popular at auction due to the continued popularity of the drink. Manufactured examples from early 20th century onward can sell for between $100 and $250 each at auction. Earlier coin silver examples from the 19th century and particularly those made by Southern silversmiths can bring very large sums. A single cup by John Ewan of Charleston, S.C., circa 1830, sold for $2,750 while a set of six by Asa Blanchard of Lexington, KY, circa 1820 sold for $15,000.