The Kentucky Derby is this weekend, and you may be headed to a party or hosting one of your own. You may even be making the pilgrimage to Churchill Downs to take in the race. Between the Derby (May 3rd), the Preakness (May 17th), and Belmont Stakes (June 9th), there is more than enough opportunity to go around. The season’s races are a thrilling spectacle, made even better by the inclusion of their own signature drinks.
For the benefit of horse-racing aficionados everywhere, allow me to present the three most important drinks in racing. Make them on their respective racing days, or try all three and have yourself a Triple Crown Weekend.
Derby Day has always been especially meaningful for my tribe, as Grandmother Dewing’s family is of Kentucky extraction. It’s a big to-do. So central is it, that when children are baptized in my family they receive a set of engraved silver julep cups, in anticipation of a different sort of christening. As expected, when I solicited my family members for their julep recipes the response was enthusiastic. I’ll try to encapsulate their rapturous descriptions into a workable formula for you, but I will caution that a proper julep may inspire an ecstatic discourse of your own.
- 1-2 oz. Mint simple syrup (prepare beforehand)
- Silver cup
- Lots of crushed ice (essential)
- 2-3 oz. Kentucky bourbon
- Mint sprig for garnish
- Bar towels
- Dry napkin
Before embarking on this adventure, prepare a simple mint syrup. I used a 1:1 ratio of boiling water to sugar, and to that added a small handful of fresh mint leaves. Press the mint between two spoons to release the oils, and throw it in.
Once the syrup is viscous and the sugar completely dissolved, remove from heat and transfer to a container. Don’t strain the mint leaves out. Allow the syrup to cool completely.
Crushed ice is absolutely required. If all you have are cubes, you can use a Lewis bag and a mallet to prepare it, or wrap the ice in a towel and smash it against a table or bar. Once you have a sufficient quantity, you can begin.
Essential equipment for a mint julep includes a polished silver cup, as silver is an excellent thermal conductor. The goal is to produce a bewitching frost across the outside surface. If you’re a parent of a small child, the effect will be familiar to you from your mandatory, repeated viewings of Frozen.
Everything about this drink should be as cold as possible. You may consider refrigerating the liquor. Don’t touch the outside of the cup until you’re ready to drink, or your smudgy, heat-retaining fingerprints will ruin the show. Likewise any drops down the side, so when it comes time to pour you’ll need a steady hand.
Set the cup on a dry napkin. Hold the cup with a dry towel and pack it with crushed ice. Really stuff it.
Once it’s filled, slowly pour the mint syrup directly into the center. Use less or more depending on your preference. I enjoyed a bit more than an ounce. Don’t spill!
Then add the bourbon, again to your taste. I would avoid using sweeter bourbon like Maker’s Mark, as it may make an already sweet beverage sickeningly so. I chose to use two ounces of Russell’s Reserve 10 year old and it performed admirably.
The ice will have melted down just a bit. Add more, until it is ever so slightly heaped above the rim of the cup. Add a sprig of mint to the top, and a straw to one side.
Recall that smell is a crucial part of taste. If you cut the straw’s length down a bit you’ll bring the recipient’s nose to the point where the mint garnish is “literally entering the nostril,” as my uncle put it. This is by design, for “with the julep, getting a snootful has two distinct and equally important meanings.”
If you’ve done everything correctly, the outside of the cup will frost over in dramatic fashion.
It looks refreshing. It is refreshing. After taking a moment to reflect upon your artistry, pick it up and take a sip. The julep is smooth and suffused with minty sweetness. The bourbon is there but quite tame. It’s very easy to suck these down.
The Derby and mint julep are a big part of my family tradition, but they aren’t the only drinks associated with the races. At the Preakness Stakes you can try the Black-eyed Susan, and at the Belmont Stakes their eponymous Jewel. But you needn’t travel to Maryland or New York. I’ve reproduced the “official” recipes here (somewhat subject to change based on corporate sponsorship, but very tasty – I assure you).
In a tall highball glass with ice, add the following:
- 1 ½ oz. Finlandia vodka
- ½ oz St. Germain
- 2 oz. pineapple juice
- ¼ oz fresh lime juice
- ¾ oz fresh orange juice
- Orange slice for garnish
Give it a quick stir and you’re all set. Refreshing, almost tropical flavor, and perfect for the heat. With good pacing you could drink these all day.
- 1 ½ oz. Woodford Reserve bourbon
- 2 oz. lemonade
- 1 oz. pomegranate juice
- Cherry or lemon wedge for garnish
Add ingredients to a cocktail shaker with ice. Shake well, then strain over ice into an old-fashioned glass. The simplest of the three, and also perhaps the most easily drinkable, it’s sweet with a bit of tart flavor for balance. Well-suited to a hot day and a good time!