Updated: Jan 8
[CONTENT WARNING: slavery]
Every year, on the 1st of June, Mint Julep Day rolls around at New College, Oxford. In a garden hedged by the medieval city wall, members of the college gather to drink a curious concoction of bourbon, brandy and mint. The Mint Julep isn’t many people’s favourite cocktail – but it is free. Why? Because of a nineteenth-century endowment left to the college by William Heyward Trapier of Windsor Plantation, Georgetown County, South Carolina.
For the most part, William Trapier was a man who lived in relative obscurity. Yet, when he travelled across the Atlantic to Oxford in June 1845, he began a tradition that has lasted (albeit with some lapses) to the present day. According to the legend, Trapier, on the evening of the 1st of June, found himself dining with the Junior Fellows in New College Hall. When he was asked what he would like to refresh himself with, he confidently requested the classic beverage of the American South: “a Mint Julep”. However, he was met with blank faces. To his horror, neither his hosts nor the servers had ever heard of such a drink. Intent on putting this to rights, Trapier set about making the mint julep for himself – and announced his plan that New College should never again suffer a lack of this drink.
Departing from Oxford and well pleased with the visit he had enjoyed, Trapier left behind a sum of money intended to pay for a free mint julep for everyone dining in Hall, each year on the anniversary of his visit. Accounts differ on whether the exact, original recipe was ever written down, or simply passed through word of mouth. He also requested that a place be set for him on this night each year in the Hall of New College. Despite promises to return to Oxford someday, Trapier faded back into obscurity in Walhalla, South Carolina, where he died in 1872. Nonetheless, in keeping with his wishes, Mint Juleps continue to be served at New College every 1st of June.
Trapier’s legacy is material, too. The money he left to New College also funded the creation of a silver cup, intricately decorated with vine leaves and flowers and a Latin inscription, to be used in the Mint Julep ceremony. More than a century later, in 1956, New College Fellow David Ogg, struck by the Trapier legend, gifted the University of South Carolina a similar commemorative cup, engraved instead with the coat of arms of New College, the coat of arms of the University of Oxford, and an inscription detailing the events of Trapier’s visit all those years ago.