Our first mint julep was poured in the infield at Churchill Downs prior to the running of the Kentucky Derby. It seems so long ago now that horses might have been the primary mode of transportation then.
An overworked bartender took the year’s official 12-ounce Derby souvenir glass, tossed in a handful of ice cubes, filled it with a brown distillate we took to be whiskey, and then stuffed a mint sprig down next to the cubes. Voila! Instant ecstasy, or so we thought after the first three drinks. We even heard they ran a race that day.
Several days and many aspirins later, we found out there’s more to creating an authentic mint julep. And, of course, you’ll want to do things right if you plan on celebrating the 139th Run for the Roses on May 4.
Some history, some chemistry
The Derby first embraced the mint julep as its official drink in 1938, but the cocktail itself has been around much longer. The julep, taken from the Persian word for “rosewater,” was first mentioned in print in London in 1803, when any “spiritous liquor” would do. Kentucky Sen. Henry Clay introduced the drink to Washington, D.C., circles during his terms in the House and as Secretary of State in early 19th century.
In those days, the julep was made with aged (or “genever”) gin. Today, however, the julep’s primary ingredient is bourbon, considered America’s unique spirit. Although it has a historical connection with Bourbon County, Ky., the spirit does not have to be produced in The Bluegrass State to be considered bourbon. But there are specific criteria that distillers must follow in order to classify their spirits as part of this prestigious heritage.
In order to qualify legally as bourbon, the distillate must be made with a grain mixture containing at least 51 percent corn. It must also be aged in new, charred-oak barrels and follow specific levels of proof (percentage of alcohol). Most bourbon is made in Kentucky, but a fair amount also is produced in Tennessee and other U.S. states.
On May 4, 1964, the United States Congress recognized bourbon as a uniquely American product, meaning this year’s Derby Day also is the 49th anniversary of that proclamation.
Mastering the julep
There are variations to the traditional mint julep recipe, but they all essentially follow the same pattern. The following recipe comes from www.kentuckyderby.com, the race’s official Web site.
2 cups sugar
2 cups water
Sprigs of fresh mint
Early Times Kentucky Whisky
Make a simple syrup by boiling sugar and water together for five minutes. Cool and place in a covered container with six or eight sprigs of fresh mint, then refrigerate overnight. Make one julep at a time by filling a silver julep cup with crushed ice, adding one tablespoon of mint syrup and two ounces of whisky. Stir rapidly with a spoon to frost the outside of the cup. Garnish with a sprig of fresh mint.
Even though Early Times may still be the preferred libation for infield fans, Churchill Downs also serves ultra-premium, custom-made VIP mint juleps that include mint from Ireland, sugar from Australia and ice cubes made from water imported from the Bavarian Alps. Served in gold-plated cups with silver straws, these juleps cost $1,000 each and the proceeds support charities for retired racehorses. The bourbon of choice for these special libations is Woodford Reserve (Versailles, Ky.)
Master distiller Chris Morris has crafted a first-rate bourbon, packaged in a commemorative Kentucky Derby 139 bottle. The 90.4 proof bourbon offers a nose of mint, cocoa and black pepper and a palate of tobacco, leather, fruit, toffee and spice.
At $40 a bottle, Woodford Reserve offers a far more economical alternative for your own VIP Derby Day celebrations, even without the imported botanicals.
You may not help any racehorses but, really, how many of them do you know anyway?
Buying a better bourbon
Early Times is the Derby’s endorsed brand, used for more than 120,000 mint juleps that will be served at Churchill Downs on Derby weekend. But it’s a blended whiskey rather than a bourbon. There’s nothing wrong with that, but if you want to stay true to America’s unique spirit, consider one of the following unique brands for your Derby Day soiree.
Wild Turkey (Lawrenceburg, Ky.) has long been one of the country’s premier bourbons. Current master distiller and third-generation owner Jimmy Russell has helped expand the brand’s appeal, as well as its profile. The Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit (101 proof) gets high marks as befits a single-barrel bourbon, with a nose that’s rye-forward and redolent of orange peels and leather and a palate of caramel, vanilla and citrus. It has a dry, creamy spiciness and excellent finish.
The Wild Turkey Rare Breed (108.2 proof), a two-time gold medalist at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition, has aromas of nuts, peppercorns and burnt sugar, delivering flavors of lemongrass, slate and white pepper. The Russell’s Reserve Small Batch Single-Barrel (110 proof) is the best of all, offering complex caramel and vanilla flavors with licorice overtones. The nine-year-old whiskey proves just how sophisticated a Wild Turkey can be.
Four Roses (Lawrenceburg, Ky.) started life as a bourbon producer, then went down the mass-market blended whiskey road before finding its way back. Today master distiller Jim Rutledge is quickly regaining a following through the production of first-rate spirits.
Four Roses Single Barrel (100 proof) teases the nose with aromas of spice, maple syrup and a little cocoa, while delivering a complex palate with hints of cherry and plum. It has a long, lingering finish. Four Roses Small Batch (90 proof) follows a slightly different flavor profile, with a spicy nose of sweet oak and caramel and a moderately sweet and creamy palate of red berries with a soft, smooth finish.