When it comes to refreshing cocktails built over crushed ice, we’d forgive you for thinking they’re all pretty much the same. In the case of a Smash and a Julep specifically, while these two drinks are undeniably related, there are certain details in what they are and how they came to be that make it worth knowing the difference.
Most simply, a Smash is always a Julep, but a Julep is not always a Smash. Confusing, I know. The Julep — these days most famously known for its association with the Kentucky Derby and the over 120,000 of them that are served that weekend alone — is a much fussier and older drink.
Thought to have originated sometime in the late 1700s, possibly in Virginia, though it’s debated, the Julep originally called for brandy, superfine sugar dissolved in water, and mint, all served in a silver glass with crushed ice piled high and a straw. (Fun fact: Along with the Cobbler, the Julep is partly credited for the invention of the drinking straw.) Only after the Civil War was the brandy replaced with bourbon and the drink became the classic Mint Julep that we know — and Kentuckians love — today.
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The Smash, on the other hand, is considered both a less fussy Julep and also a drink that usually incorporates citrus or some other fruit. One of the Smash’s first appearances came in Jerry Thomas’s 1862 book “How to Mix Drinks,” but it was more a mention of the drink than a formal recipe, and made no comparison to the Julep. The first time it seems a cocktail writer directly contrasted the drinks was in 1895, when George Kappeler wrote about both in his book “Modern American Drinks.” According to Kappeler, a Julep was to have its mint stirred into the drink, whereas in a Smash, the mint was to be muddled with the sugar and water — what we now call simple syrup — before the addition of the whiskey and citrus garnish. The Smash also didn’t need to be served in a silver cup, arguably the defining feature of the Mint Julep; a rocks glass or even wine goblet would do.
Nowadays, most modern bartenders muddle the mint in both Juleps and Smashes, so the real difference when it comes to the Smash is the addition of citrus or other fruit, which is either muddled (or, yes, smashed) along with the mint to release all the juices and oils. And of course, the Smash still doesn’t call for that fussy Julep glass.