Getting Back to the Mint Julep’s Middle Eastern Roots

It grew out of a happy accident in our kitchen when we had some extra rosewater-infused simple syrup to enjoy, but it actually tracks with the origin of the word julep itself, which is derived from the Persian “gulab” and the Arabic “julab,” both refer to drinks made with rose petals and sweetened water. 

Why did we happen to have rosewater-infused simple syrup just lying about the kitchen? Well, the answer to that is a longer story, but in short – after serving as a Fulbright Scholar in the Middle East and North Africa, my spouse Jim developed an addiction to knafeh, the delicious filo dough-based cheese pastry drenched in ‘atar (rose simple syrup) that is popular all across the Middle East. Of course one of the most important and delicious parts of it is the ‘atar poured on top to give it its complex sweetness, rich with fragrance. The history of knafeh deserves its own recipe post, but if you’re checking out Kentucky Bourbon Trail® distilleries in Lexington, do yourself a favor and head over to Al-Taj Bakery to sample their version. 

Ten years ago there was no Al-Taj and we couldn’t find or purchase prepared knafeh locally, so Jim decided to learn how to make it himself. After watching many YouTube videos, some in the original Arabic, Jim developed a reliable technique of his own. Given the significant labor involved in preparing it–carefully blending the mix of cheeses, grating the filo noodles, and creating and using the ‘atar, knafeh soon became part of our household love language–made for birthdays, festive gatherings, and all manner of celebrations. It happened that a few years back Jim made some for me for Mother’s Day, which meant we had luscious rosewater-infused simple syrup right at the time that spearmint was bursting forth in the back garden. The Kentucky Derby had just come and gone, but we had Bourbon in the house and the taste of mint juleps in our short-term memory, so why not use the ‘atar in a julep? That’s exactly what we did. And it was delicious. So that’s how the Middle Eastern Mint Julep was born, and here’s how to make one yourself. 

Rosewater-Infused Simple Syrup (‘atar*)

Ingredients: 

1 ½ c. sugar

1 ¼ c. cold water

½ tsp. lemon juice

1 Tbsp. rose water  

We’ve tried both rose and orange blossom water and they are equally delicious, though I prefer the complexity and floral notes of the rose water to the citrus notes of the orange blossom water. You can find these at any Middle Eastern or Indian grocery. 

  1. Dissolve the sugar in water in a heavy pan over medium heat, stirring occasionally.
  2. Bring to a boil, add lemon juice and boil over medium heat for 12 minutes. Once syrup starts to boil, don’t stir again, so your syrup stays clear. (Additional stirring will cause the syrup to be cloudy)
  3. Add rose water or orange blossom water, and boil for an additional 30 seconds. After it cools, the consistency should resemble that of thin honey. 
  4. Cool and store in a sealed container in the refrigerator for up to a month. 

After you’ve prepared the ‘atar and allowed it to cool, you’re ready to make your Middle Eastern Mint Julep.

Middle Eastern Mint Julep

1/4 oz rose water simple syrup (‘atar), chilled

8 spearmint leaves

2 – 2 ½ oz Kentucky Bourbon

spearmint garnish

Feel free to use your favorite Kentucky Bourbon. Prepare plenty of fresh spearmint leaves and finely crushed ice. 

  1. Add the spearmint leaves and ‘atar to a julep glass or double old fashioned glass and gently muddle.
  2. Pour 2 – 2 ½ oz. of your favorite Kentucky Bourbon.
  3. Fill the glass with crushed ice and stir until the outside is frosty.
  4. Slap one of the spearmint leaves in your palms, and rub it around the rim of the glass.
  5. Garnish with fresh mint.
  6. Add an eco straw and sip!

Enjoy responsibly and with a heaping serving of knafeh!

*’Atar recipe adapted from Holly S. Warah’s recipe

About Janice W. Fernheimer and Jim Ridolfo

​​Janice W. Fernheimer is Professor of Writing, Rhetoric, and Digital Studies; Zantker Charitable Foundation Professor and Director of Jewish Studies; and James B. Beam Institute for Kentucky Spirits Faculty Fellow at the University of Kentucky. In addition to teaching courses at the intersection of  rhetoric, writing, technology, and Jewish studies, she freelances for bourbon industry publications and teaches “Bourbon Writing” and “Bourbon Oral History” in the Certificate for Distillation, Wine, and Brewing program.  She is the author of Stepping Into Zion: Hatzaad Harishon, Black Jews, and the Remaking of Jewish Identity (University of Alabama Press 2014) and co-editor along with Michael Bernard-Donals of Jewish Rhetorics: History, Theory, Practice (Brandeis University Press 2014). She received the 2020 MidWest Archives Conference Presidents’ Award for her work on the Jewish Kentucky Oral History Project, and in spring 2021 she launched the Women in Bourbon Oral History Project in partnership with Bourbon Oral History students and the Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History. In collaboration with author/illustrator JT Waldman, she is currently authoring an archives and oral-history based transmedia project America’s Chosen Spirit,  which includes a webcomic and podcast series that detail the influences of Jews, Blacks, women, LGBTQIA individuals, and “other others” on the Kentucky bourbon industry.  

Jim Ridolfo is Associate Professor of Writing, Rhetoric, and Digital Studies and Director of the Writing Program at the University of Kentucky. In addition to teaching courses at the intersection of rhetoric, technology, and writing studies, he has guest-lectured on how-to make knaafe at home.  In 2012 he received a Middle East and North Africa Regional Research Fulbright for the West Bank and Israel  to complete  Digital Samaritans: Rhetorical Delivery and Engagement in the Digital Humanities. He is also the author of  The Available Means of Persuasion: Mapping a Theory and Pedagogy of Multimodal Public Rhetoric (with David Sheridan and Anthony Michel), and co-editor (along with William Hart-Davidson) of  Rhetoric and the Digital Humanitiesand Rhet Ops: Rhetoric and Information Warfare.  

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