04 September 2020

Horses, Booze, and the Great Mint Julep Cup Conspiracy

Athlete with a taste for water only.

(Photo by Sheri Hooley via Unsplash)

It never fails that in the presence of galloping horses, human beings become parched and feel the need to drink heavily. At least, they do in the South, birthplace of the legendary icy-sweet mint julep. The julep is the official drink of the Kentucky Derby, which is normally held in May but was postponed to September 5—tomorrow—because of the pandemic. Historically, 120,000 juleps are mixed, served, and drunk at the Derby each year. This year, the horses will run without the presence of fans, so the legions of thirsty humans will have to fend for themselves.

Drink me.

(Photo by Adam Jaime on Unsplash)

As it is mixed today, the cocktail calls for four essential ingredients: a heaping mound of crushed ice, simple syrup, bourbon, and mint. And that cup. Without the cup, the drink is tasty but unremarkable. A kind of Slushee, or snow cone, for grownups who favor bowties, seersucker suits, and wacky hats. But when that sprig of mint is tucked into the top of a copper, pewter, or silver cup frosted with condensation, suddenly we’re in food porn heaven.

A few years ago, I went looking for a (cheap) pair of those cups at the local mall, but struck out at every store I visited. I did find many of those copper Moscow mule cups that are all the rage these days. Finally, after searching in vain amid her employers’ stock, a very nice sales woman shook her head and told me, “You know, I think mint juleps are a really Southern thing, and we’re just not very Southern here in Asheville.”

That would be Asheville, North Carolina, the so-called “Paris of the South,” and the Appalachian hometown of Thomas Wolfe.

But I received her meaning. There’s South, and there’s SOUTH.

Compelled to take my investigations elsewhere, I was surprised to find that there was an entire body of lore surrounding the beverage, not to mention the cup. Ponderous food encyclopedias informed me that “julep” is derived from a Persian word, gūlab, meaning rosewater, and refers to a syrup made from that infusion. One must always endeavor to hold one’s julep cup by the bottom or top rim, never the sides, lest your sweaty mitts hasten the drink’s inevitable melting.

Since the 1940s, the quintessential Derby accoutrement has been a pricy sterling silver cup made by Wakefield-Scearce Galleries, out of Shelbyville, Kentucky.

How it came about: Times were tough because of WWII. Seeking a way to make his particular Derby cup irresistible, Mark J. Scearce the Elder hit upon the idea of producing ones marked on their undersides with the initials of the current U.S. president. He got the idea from a tradition that dates to 1300 CE and the reign of Edward I, when British silversmiths were required to stamp an official “hallmark” on the bottom of their pieces to indicate the degree of the silver’s purity.

True, at the time Scearce was developing his cups, FDR may have seemed like he’d been appointed for life, but most presidents had only served eight years, max. On that basis alone, Scearce’s cups would theoretically be limited edition items—and thus highly collectible.

LBJ so loved this tribute that he bought tons to give as gifts.

The first ones Scearce offered for sale were stamped with an American eagle and the initials of one HST. From that moment forward, each new White House occupant received a Shelbyville cup of his own. If an incumbent was reelected, Scearce added the Roman numeral II to that president’s initials.

Roman numeral II, indicating Clinton’s second time at bat.

The Scearce family continues the tradition to this day, and other firms such as Tiffany have gotten into the act. A new Scearce sterling silver presidential cup will currently set you back $850. (A $65 pewter option bears the initials of the current governor of Kentucky.) People collect Scearces and trot them out—see what I did there?—for their own annual Derby parties. Scearce cups that show up in estate sales or on eBay are often a few hundred dollars cheaper, and are snapped up quickly by people starting their own collections. The most desirable ones are those whose sides are not monogrammed with the initials of the previous owner. The least desirable are ones that are dinged, tarnished, or no longer watertight, possibly due to julep-induced fracases.

I’ve never seen an HST online, but DDE, LBJ, and JFK are surprisingly common. I have a theory about this. The older the cup, the more likely its first owner has sipped his or her last julep, and the lonely cup is seeking a new quaffer.

When it comes to “collectibles,” I typically follow a look-don’t-buy approach that has served my wallet well. But, based on my bourbon-infused research, I can say that if you’re a big spender and spy a RMN or JEC or GRF, grab it. For some reason, they are scarcer than RWR or RWRII. Right now it’s tough finding an GHWB, WJC, or GWB. I presume the original guzzlers are still knocking those back.

Of course, since this is 21st-century America, even innocuous things such as mint julep cups have become heavily politicized. I’ve read stories about people who will only collect cups denoting presidents of a particular party. Or, if their host is an equal-opportunity collector, a reveler will pounce on the president who aligns with their politics, even if that president espoused policies the current party would disavow. The more recent the president, the hotter the emotions. Thank goodness the mint julep is a cold drink.

Now. Everyone needs a conspiracy theory, and this is mine: I believe some heavy-hitter eBay vendors occasionally obscure a certain president’s name, possibly for fear that 50 percent of their potential American buyers will not consider buying the cup on offer. I have no proof of this. I just find it odd that a seller will occasionally explain that the initials on the bottom of a particular cup stand for Better Hold On. If someone is buying a vintage Scearce cup, wouldn’t they know better?

Better Hold On, my horses fanny.

I look forward to the day when the second-sip market is rife with cups paying tribute to Don’t Just Tipple, Daily Jowls Tremble, Dastardly Joke Tool, or something equally clever. That would be sweet, gūlab-flavored justice, indeed.

As summer’s days wind down, I wish you all the frostiest of cocktails. Let us depart on the words of author Frances Parkinson Keyes, whose most famous book, Dinner at Antoine’s, was a mystery set in New Orleans. Elsewhere in her oeuvre, she wrote:
“I have heard it said that the last instructions which a Virginia gentleman murmurs on his deathbed are, ‘Never insult a decent woman, never bring a horse in the house, and never crush the mint in the julep.’”
Go and bruise gently, friends.

(Photo by Ari Augustian via Unsplash)

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See you all in three weeks.


  1. It's not a mint julep, but one of my favorite whiskey stories is from Faulkner's "The Reivers":
    “Live with it? You mean, forever? For the rest of my life? Not ever to get rid of it? Never? I cant. Dont you see I cant?”

    “Yes you can,” he said. “You will. A gentleman always does. A gentleman can live through anything. He faces anything. A gentleman accepts the responsibility of his actions and bears the burden of their consequences, even when he did not himself instigate them but only acquiesced to them, didn’t say No though he knew he should. Come here.” Then I was crying hard, bawling, standing (no: kneeling; I was that tall now) between his knees, one of his hands at the small of my back, the other at the back of my head holding my face down against his stiff collar and shirt and I could smell him—the starch and shaving lotion and chewing tobacco and benzine where Grandmother or Delphine had cleaned a spot from his coat, and always a faint smell of whiskey which I always believed was from the first toddy which he took in bed in the morning before he got up. When I slept with him, the first thing in the morning would be Ned (he had no white coat; sometimes he didn’t have on any coat or even a shirt, and even after Grandfather sent the horses to stay at the livery stable, Ned still managed to smell like them) with the tray bearing the decanter and water jug and sugar bowl and spoon and tumbler, and Grandfather would sit up in bed and make the toddy and drink it, then put a little sugar into the heel-tap and stir it and add a little water and give it to me until Grandmother came suddenly in one morning and put a stop to it. “There,” he said at last. “That should have emptied the cistern. Now go wash your face. A gentleman cries too, but he always washes his face.”

  2. Joseph, interesting lore on the mint julep. Well done.

  3. Thanks R.T. and Eve, for the kind comments.

    Eve, that passage has been my favorite for DECADES. So happy to see it again.


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