Justice John Marshall Harlan (1877-1911) was riding the streetcar home from the Capitol after a Supreme Court session when a woman coming from the market got on. In a grand gesture noticed by the other riders, he took a whiff of her voluminous sleeves. “Madam is that mint?” he asked. She nodded and showed him the sprigs that were tucked up inside. Harlan replied: “If I had [mint] I would know just what to do with it.” The Kentucky Justice meant, of course, that he would add it to his bourbon.
Harlan was raised in Frankfort, about 60 miles east of Louisville where the mint julep was born. The libation was first served to guests at the Kentucky Derby in 1875 by the founder of Churchill Downs, Col. Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr. It is possible that Harlan attended the horserace that inaugural year: active in Republican politics, he was jockeying for political power.
Appointed to the Supreme Court in 1877, Harlan never lost his taste for the corn-based liquor after moving to Washington. A booster of all things Kentucky, he would offer bourbon as a gift to colleagues and friends. On one occasion when the Chief Justice, Morrison Waite, showed him his new portrait, Harlan remarked approvingly: “You look natural and life-like as you would look if I were to say that a gallon of old Bourbon was on the way from Kentucky for you.” His generosity with the amber liquor extended to presidents. In 1892 he wrote Benjamin Harrison: “Mr. President I have just received from a friend in Kentucky a small supply of Kentucky whiskey for medicinal purposes. It gives me pleasure to send you a bottle of it. I can safely recommend it is an excellent article.”
Harlan may have had bourbon on hand for medicinal purposes, but his fondness for mint suggests he enjoyed the occasional mint julep as well. To honor the memory of Justice Harlan and celebrate Derby Day, we offer the original recipe for the cocktail passed down from the founder of Churchill Downs.
Churchill Downs Mint Julep
This recipe makes 20 juleps and requires preparatory freezing of the cups and 12 hours of refrigeration.
- 1cup water
- 1cup granulated sugar
- ½cup small mint leaves, no stems
- Finely crushed ice, enough to fill the cups completely
- High-quality Kentucky bourbon
- Sprigs of mint
- Metal julep cups, about 9 ounces
- The day before serving, put the julep cups in the freezer. Put the water and sugar in a small saucepan, bring to a boil without stirring, and boil for 2 minutes, or until sugar is completely dissolved.
- Put the mint leaves in a glass jar or cup, pour the slightly cooled syrup over them, let cool, then cover and refrigerate for 12 hours or longer. When ready to use, strain out the mint leaves.
- Half an hour before serving, pack the julep cups tightly up to the rim with crushed ice and return them to the freezer.
- For each julep pour 3 ounces of bourbon over the ice, followed by two teaspoons of mint syrup. Do not stir or agitate. Hold each cup with a cloth to keep the frost. Poke a hole in the ice on the side of the cup and insert a sprig of mint. Serve immediately, preferably on a silver tray.