It is once again that time of year in Derby City (aka Louisville) to share the mystical lore of the mint julep. After all, few drinks are held in such high esteem that they merit their own elegant namesake vessels. Julep cups began to be made before the drink was invented, however, and originally appear in period inventories as tumblers or beakers, terms by which they are still known more generically today.
The silver julep cup has long been a symbol of achievement and prestige popular throughout the South. For more than two centuries Kentuckians have given, received, and used them as they were intended at special events, from ceremonial family gatherings such as christenings and weddings, to public contests at local and state fairs. And, of course, at the state’s favorite pastime, horse racing. As far back as 1816 the Kentucky Gazette noted that julep cups had been awarded as prizes at horse races in the Commonwealth.
The julep cup (i.e., tumbler or beaker) is a classic American silver form. Julep cups were made in many Southern states, and each often developed its own unique style. In Kentucky, the distinctive straight body lines with graceful moldings at base and rim may trace its origins to silversmiths Asa Blanchard of Lexington and William and Archibald Cooper of Louisville. There are currently twenty-three julep cups (tumblers) on the KOAR website; the first shown here is credited to William Kendrick and the rest to John Kitts, both of whom worked in Louisville.
William Kendrick (1810-1880) was born in Paterson, New Jersey, to English immigrant Walter Kendrick. Walter moved his family to Louisville in 1818, ten years before it was incorporated as Kentucky’s first city (in 1828) with a population surpassing 7,000. (The settlement that became Louisville had been founded by George Rogers Clark in 1778.) About 1824, young William began a seven year jeweler’s apprenticeship to Evans C. Beard. (Beard was in partnership with silversmith Elias Ayers as Ayers & Beard from about 1820 to 1831, then with watchmaker George A. Zeumar as E.C. Beard & Co. from 1831 to 1851.) After coming of age, William was in the partnership of Lemon & Kendrick with James Innes Lemon from 1831 to 1841. Kendrick opened his own jewelry and fancy store on the east side of Fourth Street between Main and Market in 1842, “his stock in trade consisting of (in his own words), ‘$20.00 cash, a silver watch worth about $19.00, and a few watch tools, the whole amounting to about $150.00.’”
Kendrick married Maria Schwing, daughter of Louisville goldsmith and jeweler John Godfried Schwing, in 1832, and was listed as a jeweler on both the 1850 and the 1870 census. He moved his store to Third Street in 1855, where he stayed fifteen years before moving in 1870 to 114 West Main Street, on the south side just east of the National Hotel. In 1873, he went into partnership with his son, William Carnes Kendrick (1852-1938), as the firm of William Kendrick & Son. In 1875 their shop moved to 336 Fourth Street, on the west side between Market and Jefferson, then as business increased moved again to more spacious quarters at 110 Fourth Street in 1877; on both occasions newspaper articles in Louisville’s Courier-]ournal noted the firm’s success. By the time of William Kendrick’s death in 1880, he had become one of Louisville’s most prosperous and respected merchants.
William Carnes Kendrick was joined by younger brother George Penton Kendrick (1856-1937), listed as a manufacturing jeweler and diamond merchant in the 1880 census, to continue the firm as William Kendrick’s Sons, which remained in business until 1932, when it was reorganized. (The business descended through a third and fourth generation of Kendricks before being purchased in 1966 by jeweler and watchmaker Joseph C. Merkley, who renamed it Merkley Kendrick Jewelers, under which name it is still open today as “the oldest independent jeweler in Louisville and the second oldest in America”.) In 1937, William Carnes Kendrick wrote Reminiscences of Old Louisville, a lengthy typescript account of the city that includes references to many local businesses and business owners, starting with a “Memoir to My Father, William Kendrick” and ending with the catastrophic “Recent Flood” that left Louisville under several feet of water for many weeks. It can be found at:
This, along with many other publications, can also be found on the KOAR website at:
John Kitts was listed in the Louisville City Directory of 1841 as a watchmaker employed at Lemon & Kendricks. Kitts later opened his own jewelry business and was involved in a number of partnerships in Louisville until 1878. A bit more has been written about Kitts and Kentucky silver in general in two earlier blogs here:
But back to those mint juleps …
A julep is generally defined as a sweet drink, and from the French can be traced back to the Persian term gulab, meaning rose water, or a drink made from water and rose petals. The mint julep originated in the southern United States during the early to mid eighteenth century, most likely in Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina. The first mention of it in print seems to be from an 1803 book published in London, England, where John Davis described the mint julep as “a dram of spirituous liquor that has mint steeped in it, taken by Virginians of a morning.” U.S. Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky introduced the mint julep to Washington, D.C., at the Round Robin Bar in the famous Willard Hotel.
The tradition of serving the mint julep in a silver cup migrated westward to Kentucky. A chilled mint julep in a silver cup was to be served with a napkin or a small linen doily. The cup should be held only by its bottom and top edges, which allows frost to form on the outside of the cup while sipping. (Hand placement is critical in preventing transfer of body heat through the touch of bare fingers, especially since the days mandating that gloves be worn in public have long passed.) The cup will not frost properly if it is in the wind, if it is wet, if the ice has not been drained of excess water, or if the cup is excessively handled. As Pete Wells wrote of juleps in a June 24, 2009, Dining & Wine column in the New York Times, “For all the chest-thumping this class of drinks has caused, it’s a simple affair: sweetened liquor stirred in a mound of finely crushed or shaved ice. But until you’ve had one made without shortcuts, one that truly frosts the outside of its cup, it’s impossible to imagine how refreshing a julep can be.”
There has been, of course, much debate over the perfect mint julep recipe. According to David Wondrich, Esquire magazine’s resident cocktail historian, “In the dark backward of time, the Proper Construction of the Julep … was one of those topics that an American male with social aspirations was expected to regard as a matter of honor — at least, if said specimen was a son, nephew, cousin or acquaintance of the South. Just about every state in Dixie had its own sacrosanct way of handling the mint, the sugar, the ice, the booze. Duels were fought. Names were called.”
Some maintain it is the mint that has caused most of the trouble, whether the fresh mint should be muddled (crushed) in preparation so that essential oils and juices can be released into the mixture to intensify its flavor, as is usually preferred in Kentucky, or the leaves should be left to slide unmolested into the cup. Most would agree that only the freshest mint, and of that just the smallest tenderest leaves, should be used. A few sprigs of mint should also top the ice so this will be the first aroma encountered by the partaker.
Other advice is readily offered regarding how to finely crack the ice before packing it in the cup, how to speed the formation of frost on the cup by stirring briskly or twirling the glass, exactly what ingredients (such as old-fashioned cut loaf sugar) to use, and so forth. But in describing the “preparation of the quintessence of gentlemanly beverages” Kentucky Lt. Col. Simon Bolivar Buckner, Jr., eloquently wrote, “A mint julep is not the product of a FORMULA. It is a CEREMONY … a rite that must not be entrusted to a novice, a statistician, nor a Yankee. It is a heritage of the old South, an emblem of hospitality …” For the pleasure of perusing the remainder of his romantic paean, from the gathering of fresh mint and crystal-clear spring water to the moment when “you have a beverage eminently appropriate for honorable men and beautiful women … where the aroma of the juleps will rise Heavenward and make the birds sing …” see his entire 1937 letter to Gen. William D. Connor, who had asked Buckner to oversee preparation of mint juleps for President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Gen. Douglas MacArthur at West Point two years earlier, at:
Although bourbon is now the preferred spirit in mint juleps almost everywhere, the first mint juleps were made with rum, rye whiskey, genever (an aged gin) and other available spirits. But by the early eighteenth century farmers were using stills to make corn whiskey along the American frontier that would become the Commonwealth of Kentucky. Bourbon County, a vast area still part of western Virginia when founded in 1785, was named after the French royal House of Bourbon, who had helped the United States defeat the British in the Revolutionary War. After Kentucky was admitted to the Union in 1792 Bourbon County was repeatedly subdivided, eventually becoming thirty-four modern day counties, but the entire region continued to be called Old Bourbon for many decades. Kentucky-made products exported from this area, such as corn whiskey, were shipped out through the Ohio River port of Limestone (now Maysville) with “Old Bourbon” stenciled on barrels to indicate their point of origin. In Bourbon, Straight: The Uncut and Unfiltered Story of American Whiskey, Charles K. Cowdery points out that “Old Bourbon whiskey was different because it was the first corn whiskey most people had ever tasted.” After about 1840 this was shortened to just “Bourbon”, the identity Kentucky corn whiskey soon became known by the world-over.
Local distillers attribute much of the unique nature of Kentucky bourbon to its geography, the limestone bedrock under the Blue Grass region formed by fossils of shelled crustaceans that inhabited the shallow tropical ocean covering this area in prehistoric times. As water filters through the limestone minerals are released into the ground soil, enriching crop yield (including the corn as well as the distinctive bluegrass on which thoroughbred foals graze) and providing nutrients for yeast, which is added to the corn mash to convert sugars into alcohol during the fermentation process. Limestone also breaks down over time to form massive caves like central Kentucky’s Mammoth Caves, the longest cave system in the world. The springs that flow from these underground caverns provide plentiful sources of pure iron-free water.
Like the mint julep, no story is more hotly contested than the origin of bourbon. “The fact of the matter is, we are never going to know who invented bourbon,” says Michael R. Veach, author of Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey: An American Heritage. “Bourbon, I think, is more of an evolution than an invention.” Bourbon developed into its present form by the late nineteenth century and is now legally defined as a type of American whiskey made from a fermented mash primarily consisting of corn (at least 51%) and aged in new charred white oak barrels, usually for at least two years. All straight bourbons now use a “sour mash” process, in which mash from a previous distillation (strained wet solids still containing live yeast) is added to the new fermentation. The clear corn whiskey is then aged in newly charred American oak barrels, where it interacts with caramelized sugars in the wood beneath the layer of char, making the flavor smoother and mellower, and also giving bourbon its characteristic amber color. (After draining, the barrels still contain twenty pounds of bourbon within the wood so cannot be re-used to make bourbon; they are sometimes sold to the Scotch whiskey industry.)
Each distillery has its own sour mash culture and bourbon recipe, a closely guarded secret by the master distiller. Experimentation and refinement with various ratios of ingredients, subtleties in the distillation process, and lengths of aging time yield different flavors of bourbons. Distilleries located in the Kentucky Blue Grass region make about nine out of every ten bottles of bourbon, although it may be produced anywhere in the United States where it is legal to distill spirits. The Kentucky Distillers’ Association estimates that the state has 4.9 million barrels of bourbon currently aging, a figure that exceeds the state’s population.
“My argument is the true mint julep waited for bourbon to be invented,” says Joe Nickell, author of the Kentucky Mint Julep. Legend has it that in 1875 mint was planted outside the club house of the new racetrack in Louisville so that mint juleps could be served at the first Kentucky Derby. Today, almost 120,000 juleps are served by Churchill Downs over the two-day period of the Kentucky Oaks and the Kentucky Derby. Nothing quite like that sweet bite of bourbon mixed with fresh mint, served ice cold, on the first Saturday in May …
The Kendrick Family Papers 1852-1973 are at the Filson Historical Society Special Collections in Louisville:
Margaret-M. Bridwell’s article on “The House of Kendrick” for The Filson Club History Quarterly (vol.22, 1948), which includes a portrait of William Kendrick, is available online at:
For more on early racing in Louisville, read our earlier blog at:
David Wondrich’s “High Kentucky School of Julepistics” recipe and tips can be found online, at:
Much more about Kentucky bourbon can be found at:
KOAR images shown here, from top to bottom:
1918.104.22.168 Kendrick, William
1922.214.171.124 Kitts, John
19126.96.36.199 Kitts, John
19188.8.131.52 Kitts, John
1951.1.17 Mammoth Cave