For a mint julep, the International Bartenders Association suggests what garnish?

Don't scroll until you've answered.

Published May 2, 2024

Duh! is a weekly column that gives circuitous answers to obvious questions. If you dig it, you can find 100 more of these essays in the Geeks Who Drink book, Duh!.

It’s mint, duh. More interesting: Have you ever heard of a non-mint julep? They must exist; after all, theoretically “julep” can refer to any alcoholic drink garnished with mint–i.e., not necessarily with mint in it–or even a non-alcoholic drink made of water, sweet syrup, and some other flavoring. That’s suspiciously close to Kool-Aid right there… and yet, who ever heard of a Slammin’ Strawberry Kiwi julep?

Etymologically, there’s no reason why a julep should have anything to do with mint. Its first, 14th-century apothecary’s definition, was just a sweet drink to mix medicine into. It kept that meaning all the way up to the 1760s, when they started putting mint in there and gave it the scientific-sounding name julepum menthae. At some later date, wiser heads decided they’d rather mix it with bourbon than medicine, and there ya have it.

But before the booze and the mint–long before the 1300s even–it was gulab, the Persian word for rose water. (Or, being as they invented the modern distillation process (in the 800s, btw), it’s more like “rose water” is the English word for gulab.1) In addition to the standard cosmetic applications–folks have been popping petals in their bathwater for millennia, from Egypt to India–Persians used it to season meat and make an early form of marzipan. 

With its location smack in the middle between Europe, Asia, and Arabia, Persia always has been in a great position to export its cultural heritage,2 and gulab was no exception: It quickly took the Middle East by storm, resulting in its first published recipes; hopped over from Northern Africa to Spain, where they invented a special sprinkler for it; and got spread by returning crusaders throughout Western Europe, and eventually the Americas in the 1700s. It also traveled eastward along the Silk Road to India,3 where it took a starring role in multiple dishes, including that delicious rice pudding called khir that you’ve probably had at some restaurant or another.

Back to etymology, though: At some point before our julep conundrum, “rose water” morphed into “sweet water,” and bartender/author Joel Finsel connects the dots from there: “In the late middle ages, Europe started to import sugar from Arabic-speaking, cane-growing countries. Along with the sugar came words associated with it, including the word sugar itself. Also, ‘candy.’ Also, ‘syrup.’ And of course, julep.”

Cue the apothecaries.

If you wanna reclaim the word from the mint-humpers of the world, or maybe just stage an oblique Kentucky Derby protest, we’re happy to report that there are other juleps after all. Basically the only way to find them is to google (I swear I’m not making this up) ”julep recipe -mint –beauty”:

… and none of those have mint in ‘em, not even as a garnish. Nobody tell Webster!

  1. They’re constructed the same way too: gul = rose, ab = water. Not everything needs a fancy trade name, you know.
  2. Go on, name another country that makes nice rugs.
  3. Speaking of the Silk Road, roses were first cultivated by the Chinese, about 5,000 years ago. Go ahead and add that to your very long mental list of things China did first.

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