Monday, May 9, 2016

The Mint Julep and the Kentucky Derby

Kentuckians know how to enjoy a horserace. Get a good seat at the Derby and order one of their signature mint juleps. The refreshing aromatic spice of mint and complex bourbon whiskey rouses the palate with sunshine and song. This “sort of snow cone for grownups” according to Ann Limpert of The Washingtonian, has kept Derby fans cool since Churchill Downs racetrack opened in 1875.

The mint julep is a signature part of the Southern States cuisine and it takes four ingredients to make it: mint, bourbon, sugar and water. They’re usually served in a classy silver or pewter cup or tall old-fashioned glass like a Collins glass or highball glass with a straw. The key to a great mint julep lies in two things: decent bourbon whiskey and fresh mint.  I was in the right state for bourbon (clever smile at my pun). Kentucky brews 95% of the world’s bourbon and is, after all, known for two things: its Derby and its Bourbon.

Just prior to the Derby, my good whippet friend Sparky took me to Lynn’s Paradise Café on Barret Avenue in the Highlands. We enjoyed a gourmet sandwich with a superb mint julep inside this funky retro-fifties restaurant from another dimension. For a whippet, Sparky sure gets around.
Enchanted with this festive icy cocktail, I suggested that we go back to Sparky’s place and make our own. He readily agreed and took me to his favorite friendly liquor store on Bardstown Road to buy a good bourbon.

Kentucky Bourbon

Copper pot stills of Woodford Reserve
Bourbon is a barrel-aged American whiskey made mainly of corn since the 18th century. Like Champagne, Bourbon is named for the area it was first conceived, known as Old Bourbon (now Bourbon County in Kentucky) and after the French House of Bourbon royal family. The typical bourbon grain mixture, called mash bill, is 70% corn mixed with wheat and/or rye and malted barley. Yeast is added to a sour mash of ground grain and fermented. This “wash” is then distilled into a clear spirit, which is aged in charred white oak barrels. Bourbon gains color and flavor from the wood as it ages. Straight bourbon has aged at least two years and received no additional color or flavor. After aging, the bourbon is taken out of the barrel, diluted with water and bottled to at least 80 US proof. Whiskeys up to 151 (and higher) proof exist; they’re called barrel proof because they weren’t diluted after they were taken out of the barrel.

The store was well stocked with fine bourbons, mostly single-barreled. I gravitated to the Buffalo Trace, drawn to its nose with a complex procession of vanilla and citrus, and an elegant finish of sweeter vanilla joined by a dry toasty oakiness. Meantime, Sparky was eying the 15-year old Pappy’s Van Winkle Family Reserve. Going for $37, this complex and smooth bourbon has an intensely fruity nose, buttery palate with complex sherry and vanilla notes. We ended up agreeing on Maker’s Mark for our mint julep (favored by Louis Rice and recommended by the Washingtonian for a bourbon julep); this amber bourbon is a smooth and mellow whiskey, with sweeter tones of honey and vanilla. And it’s perfect for sipping.

Look for a premium class sipping whiskey that is a Kentucky Straight (aged at least two years and made entirely in Kentucky) and a single-barreled bourbon (e.g., the bottle comes from an individual aging barrel; not a blend from various different barrels to provide uniformity of color and taste). Blanton’s Single Barrel Bourbon, whose bottle top is an exquisite brass jockey and rider, makes a great souvenir for anyone traveling through. It boasts a very deep and satisfying nose, with a start of caramel and vanilla and a “soft pepper” aftertaste.

If you’re driving through Louisville Kentucky in September, take Bardstown Road all the way to the town of Bardstown (the Bourbon Capital of the World) for the annual Kentucky Bourbon Festival. Sparky says he’s going. Like I said, he gets around.

Kentucky Mint Julep

The recipe for mint julep varies quite a bit among avid julep drinkers. One of the variations is in how much the fresh mint is handled. Some recommend that it be only lightly bruised, if at all. Others treat it like a “smash” (as in the brandy smash and the mojito), in which the fresh mint is crushed or eagerly “muddled” to release essential oils and juices into the bourbon and sugar to intensify the mint flavor. Whether the mint is simply added as a garnish or crushed outright, the intention is to introduce its flavor and aroma through the nose. This is particularly important for those of you who are human—we can’t all be cats or dogs, after all!

No one is certain how the mint julep came about. People suggest that it originated in the southern United States during the eighteenth century; Kentucky Senator Henry Clay introduced the drink to Washington, D.C. at the Round Robin Bar in the Willard Hotel—a fitting and splashy intro for this festive cocktail. Known as the crown jewel of Pennsylvania Avenue, The Willard is Washington DC’s most celebrated historic hotel, having hosted political and social events of consequence since it opened in 1818 and enjoyed such notable guests as Charles Dickens, Buffalo Bill, David Lloyd George, and Mark Twain. Clay’s mint julep was in great company! Juleps, says Jim Hewes, bartender of the Round Robin Bar “evoke an era of hospitality and geniality, when you were offering the best of what you had: whiskey, ice—which was hard to come by—mint, and time.”

The word “julep” actually comes from the Persian word for rose water and is generally identified with the notion of a sweet drink. While some people use gin in their juleps, I highly recommend bourbon-based juleps. If you’re in Kentucky why would you miss a chance to drink this state’s most exquisite signature spirit?

Here’s the recipe that Sparky and I used to prepare our mint julep:

Ingredients for one drink:

·       About 20 mint leaves, plus more for garnish
·       2 tsp. sugar or 2 tsp. mint simple syrup (you can google to find out how to make it)
·       2 to 3 oz. bourbon
·       Plenty of crushed ice


Put mint leaves and sugar (or mint simple syrup) in a Mint Julep cup or old fashioned glass.
2.     You have two choices: 1) muddle or crush the fresh leaves and sugar until the sugar dissolves. This will take a few minutes. Don’t be discouraged; the sugar and mint will comingle in an exquisitely fragrant mash worth the effort; 2) or you can infuse the leaves in the mint simple syrup, and still muddle if you wish. We went with muddling (because we like the word). Many suggest that you let it stand and steep for a bit to allow the broken leaves to release their flavor. We were ok with that. We needed to rest our tired little paws anyway. Some recipes further suggest an overnight stay in the fridge to further infuse the mint with sugar water. Once you’ve prepare the mint simple syrup you can store it in the fridge for several months prior to completing steps three and four.
3.     Fill a glass with crushed or cracked ice. Add bourbon and stir until an icy frost develops on the outside of the glass.

4.     Garnish with additional mint leaves (or a whole sprig) and serve immediately.

Sparky and I then settled in his back patio-deck and kicked back this zesty sunny drink with sllloooooowww sips. I recommend good company, a shady place outside on a sunny day where birds and the gentle rustling of the trees can mingle with your joyful discussion over this zesty and extremely satisfying drink. Amen!

The Kentucky Derby

Kentucky is best known for two things: its horses—with possibly more per capita than anywhere else in the world, according to my Kentucky friends—and its world-class bourbon. There is no better place or event that combines these two icons than the Kentucky Derby, called “the most exciting two minutes in sports.”

The mint julep became the official drink of the Kentucky Derby in 1938, keeping wide-brimmed and well-heeled track-goers loose-limbed and happy every since. Every year over a hundred thousand juleps are cheerfully imbibed at the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks over a two day period, virtually all of them in specially made Kentucky Derby collectible glasses, like the one pictured here. You can, of course, escalate the derby experience by augmenting your mint julep with a meal out of Kentucky Hot Browns and Derby Pie. YUM!

Some Great Kentucky Bourbons:

Here are some of the best bourbons according to, and

Maker’s Mark Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey: an amber-colored 6-year old 90 proof bourbon. The rye-less recipe of this mellow bourbon smooths its edges, revealing its soft and gentle spirit. This bourbon celebrates a subtle, complex yet clean nose with vanilla and delicate floral notes of roses, lime and cocoa beans. This delicate and circumspect bourbon (compared to some of its more redneck cousins) makes it perfectly suited for sipping neat or pouring over rocks.

Buffalo Trace Straight Bourbon: a 90 proof well-rounded bourbon with initial aroma containing elements of spice, sautéed butter and old leather gloves; sweet and almost fruity, with sweet oak, cinnamon, nutmeg, honey tar and beeswax, ending with a spirited and feisty finish. A good sipping bourbon.

Evan Williams S.B. Single Barrel Vintage: a 9-year old 86 proof bourbon that is extremely aromatic and slightly sweeter than most.

W.L. Weller Special Reserve: a 7-year old deep bronze 90 proof bourbon with aromas of lanolin, almond oil and creamed corn with a long sweet oaky finish. It is most noted for being the first “wheated” bourbon, which, like Makers Mark, removes all rye from the formula and replaces it with wheat, making it a smoother ride down the throat.

Woodford Reserve: a classy 90 proof bourbon that flows mellow over the tongue with a soft and satisfying burn down the throat.

1792 Ridgemont Reserve: a deep amber 8-year old 94 proof bourbon with distinctly smooth, rich and velvety taste and complex aromas of honeyed fruit cake and chocolate covered cherries followed by a soft caramel, nuts and exotic peppercorn notes. This bourbon finishes with a nice ginger and spice accented face with noticeable heat.

Basil Haydens Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey: an 80 proof 8-year old bourbon that is less heavy on the palate, owing to its lower proof.

Knob Creek: a 9 year old 100 proof bourbon that, according to, “is just what the doctor ordered (or asked you to stay away from)”. A rich, dark and dense bourbon that commands your mouth’s attention with every sip.

Elijah Craig Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey: a 12 year old bourbon from Bardstown. Considered one of the oldest bourbons on the market, it starts nice, with caramel and rye being most noticeable, then finishing with a punch.

Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve: a 15 year old 107 proof bourbon with a fine copper color, intense fruited nose with tantalizing citrus zest note to a long and elegant finish. As the first drops roll over your tongue, you taste caramel and spice. The taste evolves into a slow burn as it warms you up inside. Great straight up.

Baker’s Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey: a 7 year old 107 proof bourbon with oaky tones that is slightly sweeter than most; good for sipping.

Fighting Cock: a 6 year old 103 proof bourbon with a noticeable “rye” kick.

Booker’s: a 126 proof completely uncut and unfinished bourbon; a “dangerously good” bourbon!


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