For Southerners in general and Louisvillians in particular, the Kentucky Derby is not just a one-day horse race: it’s more than a month of events, parties, and preparations for the big day, which is always the first Saturday in May. Televised, what most folks see leading up to the event are the huge and fabulous hats, a sea of pastel dresses, and a lot of smug white men wearing seersucker suits and bow ties. Oh, and gorgeous prancing horses, tiny jockeys with layers of tight silk, and the occasional peek into a mosh pit of scantily clad writhing debauchery centered in the racetrack’s infield.* The difference between the expensively chapeau-ed viewers in the grandstands, and the revelry in the infield [can’t even see horses from there, let alone the race] pretty much sums up every Derby Party of my decades of attending/hosting. Some parties are all glam hats and dainty sandwiches. More often, it’s a day filled with illegal betting, outrageous smack talk, and putting out the flash fire set when the grill got hit by the potato cannon and knocked over a quart of moonshine. It’s a little bit crazy, with a lot of traditions. One thing every party has in common, regardless of financing, weather, or location: we drink a shit-ton of Mint Juleps.
Long before the first official “Derby” race was run in 1875, Juleps were an essential part of warm-weather day drinking tradition in most of the nation. But even before the War Between the States, building a proper Julep was a point of contention near coming to blows for gentlemen of the South. The Commonwealth of Kentucky declared neutral status leading into the Civil War, with its population split over the issue of slavery. The border state was a crucial point of supply for both armies: President Lincoln famously declared, “I hope to have God on my side, but I must have Kentucky.” Well before Kentucky eventually sided with the Union, Deep Southerners wouldn’t be caught dead drinking their Juleps made with Kentucky bourbon, which they considered liquor made by treasonous Union lackeys. See, all whiskey was taxed, and all taxes from Kentucky bourbon went to fund the Union. Thus, you’ll find Julep recipes made with rum, brandy, or more rarely, rye whiskey. However, the bourbon-based Mint Julep has been the official beverage of Derby race host Churchill Downs for over a century. On race day, the track serves over 80,000 cocktails to race fans, all made with a proprietary pre-bottled super sweet concoction any bourbon purist worth their salt avoids like white shoes before Easter.
So, it’s with a combination of revelry, reverence, and raucousness reminiscent of the event itself that one should approach making a proper Mint Julep. Or even better, an improper one. Juleps pack a powerful punch: they are basically just booze, mint, and simple syrup mixed together and poured over crushed ice. These will get you completely shit-faced, and fast, my friends. In fact, after a couple of them, you’d be wise to start cutting some of the bourbon with iced tea or lemonade, or you’ll be passed out before they televise the crowd lip synching “My Old Kentucky Home” just before the race. You’ll wake up with a mint-filled Mason jar clutched in your fist, $40 in ones peeking out of your pocket, and the fireflies haven’t even come out yet for the night. Good times.
Grab your fancy hat, and let’s make some drinks. Shall we?
The glass: Part of the intrinsically refreshing experience of julep drinking is holding the frosty beverage in your steamy paws on a hot day. Families of the Southern gentility keep racks of silver julep cups around for just such occasions. If you don’t have access to a collection yourself, mint juleps are equally well served in squat tumblers, tall narrow Collins glasses, or an Old Fashioned glass. I like to distribute my juleps in pint Mason jars: they conveniently serve as both the mixing vessel AND the serving glass, and are nearly indestructible. Plus, guests can shake up their own cocktails. Everyone loves a little audience participation, right? A crucial bit of prep: cut some straws just a couple of inches taller than the glass, so that fresh mint bomb is all up in your grill while you’re slurping.
The ice: A julep is meant to be served ice cold and stay cold. The perfect vehicle for keeping the frigid action going? Crushed ice, or, if you can get your hands on consistently produced “spit ice” do so. No time for that sourcing? Wrap a few handfuls of regular old ice cubes in a tea towel and smack the shit out of it with a mallet or the back of a cast iron skillet. Voila! Crushed ice.
The mint: Classic juleps are always made with spearmint, but sure, you’ll see another mint variety serve julep duty on occasion. The big secret, though? For the love of all that is holy, don’t kill your mint. When I see someone grinding mint with a mortar into the bottom of a glass until it’s a wad of viscous green pulp, I just cringe. It makes the mint bruised-looking and tastes bitter by releasing a ton of chlorophyll. Plus all of those little mint pieces invariably get stuck in your teeth; who wants that when you are wearing bright red lipstick and a fabulous hat? A pert spank of the mint between your palms will do, you naughty nymph, if you make minted simple syrup a day in advance...
The simple syrup: You’ll love this stuff; in addition to making superlative Juleps, minted simple syrup is perfect in Mojitos, iced sweet tea, lemonade, and Arnold Palmers. Plus, folks will be super impressed when you say, “Oh, this? It’s just a house-infused mint syrup. I keep it around for this and that.” Pretty soon, you’ll be making ginger syrups, rosemary syrups, all kinds of fabulous shit. It’s dead easy. Recipe, below.
The booze: Proof, or alcohol content by volume, is the variable that will determine the knock-you-on-your-assedness level of the cocktail; the higher the percentage of alcohol, the stronger the drink [duh], and often more pronounced bourbon flavor [my preference: a 90 proof bourbon]. I personally have never seen a julep mixed at Kentuckian’s home using anything less than three ounces of bourbon or rye, with a booze to simple syrup ratio of 3:1. Again, with the shit-facedness; drink responsibly, y’all! Please do not use your best whiskey to make this cocktail. In fact, if I hear of someone using aged Willett or Pappy for juleps I will hunt you down and wrestle that bottle away from your unworthy hands, ya knobheaded fuckwit. This is less than $30 per bottle mixology going on here.
Okee doke. Time to make the donuts...
Minted Simple Syrup
To make 2 cups of simple syrup: add one cup sugar to a pint Mason jar [or other heat-proof lidded glass jar]. Slowly pour about a cup of boiling water into the jar, leaving 1 generous inch of empty space below the rim. Stir gently until sugar is dissolved. Once the sugar syrup is cool enough to touch comfortably with your fingers, add 2-3 sprigs mint to the jar. Cool to room temperature, place the lid on the jar, and set in the refrigerator at least 4 hours or overnight. Remove mint leaves, and store in the refrigerator for up to one week.
A Proper Mint Julep
“Spank” a sprig of mint between your hands [as if you are clapping], place in the bottom of a chilled silver Julep cup, glass, or pint Mason jar. Fill the cup to the rim with crushed ice. Pour over the ice 2-3 oz. Kentucky Bourbon [your call on the inebriation potential, here], and 1 ½ oz. mint simple syrup. Gently stir the cocktail with a long handled bar spoon until combined, or if you are using Mason jars, have your guests add the lid and give it a few sexy shakes. Spank another mint sprig and add as a garnish. Serve with a straw.
An “Improper” Strawberry Julep -- I made this cocktail for a friend who complained that a traditional julep was too strong. Meaning, they don’t like the taste of bourbon. Psht. Convinced that I could make them like a bourbon-based cocktail they’d love, I threw this baby together. Gushing commenced. Now everybody’s happy.
In the bottom of a cocktail shaker, muddle two very ripe strawberries until they are smooshy. Add 2 oz. bourbon or rye whiskey, 2 oz. mint syrup, one sprig of mint, and 2-3 cubes of ice. Shake about 5-6 seconds. To the serving glass, add one sprig of “spanked” mint, and fill to the rim with ice. Strain the cocktail into the ice-filled serving glass. Garnish with another sprig of “spanked” mint, and a splash of club soda if desired.
Quick and Dirty Mint Julep in a Hurry
Don’t have time to make simple syrup for just one cocktail? Here ya go: To a cocktail glass, add one large sprig of mint and 1 ½ teaspoons granulated sugar. Muddle briefly with the back of a spoon, just enough to release some mint fragrance. Add 1 oz. water and stir until sugar dissolves. Fill the glass with crushed ice. Add 2 oz. bourbon, stir gently until combined. Add another sprig of “spanked” mint for garnish. Don’t forget your straw.
*What’s the Derby really like, you ask? Look up Hunter S. Thompson’s 1970 essay, “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved” to get a sense of the complete debauchery of the event. It’s a marvel of sports reporting and travel journalism wrapped up in complete and utter sublime bullshit that stands the test of time more than forty years later. And it’s Hunter S. Thompson drinking whiskey for three straight days. Often in Julep form. Y’all are welcome.