On the first Saturday in May, somewhere in the ballpark of 150,000 people from all walks of life will descend on a 140-plus-year-old racetrack in Kentucky known as Churchill Downs. Those with money will sit in the stands, those with lots of money will sit in the clubhouse suites, and everyone else, hopeful bettors in the tens of thousands, will mingle in the infield in something of a Kentuckian version of Mardi Gras.
But no matter how much these revelers shelled out for tickets to the Kentucky Derby, you can be sure they’ll have two things in common — they’ll all be wearing hats and they’ll all be drinking mint juleps.
Well, most of them over the age of 21, at least. Vendors at Churchill Downs pour more than 100,000 mint juleps during Derby weekend every year. The old-time Southern drink became the official cocktail of the Kentucky Derby way back in 1938, and now, like peanut butter and jelly, the two are inextricably bound together in our collective consciousness.
I gleaned these bits of trivia when I toured the hallowed racetrack back in March, while in Louisville for the IACP conference. I arrived with the lone goal of occupying myself for a couple hours before heading to the airport, but I left with a serious case of Derby fever. Viewing the racing memorabilia and exhibits in the adjacent museum gave me a deep respect for the athleticism of the horses, the skill and personal journeys of the breeders, trainers and jockeys, and also for the sheer history of this cultural phenomenon. I was so moved I spent the entire taxi ride to the airport looking at return flights for May.
But two trips to Louisville in the span of two months are not in the cards, or my budget, so I’ll have to make do with a Derby party at home. Though I’ll be resigned to watching the ponies on TV, I take solace knowing that at least my juleps will taste far better than the stuff they pour at the track. Not only will I use a proper metal julep cup, which feels deliciously cold on your lips every time you take a sip, I can use Woodford Reserve (the official bourbon of the Kentucky Derby) without having to pay $1000 for a special commemorative glass (apparently the regular juleps served at Churchill Downs are made with Early Times Kentucky whiskey, not bourbon, a big difference.)
The Bourbon aficionados I met in Kentucky pooh-pooh mint juleps as a waste of good bourbon, but I say phooey. Juleps are damn tasty, especially on a hot day when the bracing flavor of fresh mint and the icy cold cup seem to magically shave 20 degrees off the thermometer. It’s the ultimate porch sipper, and easy too. Besides, the drink has clout, with a long and storied history as the epitome of Southern wealth and hospitality. Silver cups, ice in the summer — only the well-to-do could afford such luxuries. And I’ll happily raise to toast to the modern conveniences that have made juleps a cocktail for the masses.
These days the hardest part about making a mint julep is getting your hands on crushed ice. If your fridge doesn’t make crushed ice, you can put the ice in an inexpensive canvas bag called a Lewis Bag and pound it with a mallet or meat tenderizer. The bag is easy to store and even absorbs some of the excess water. Or get a hand-crank ice crusher (which is also very handy when the kids are sick and need ice chips).
Another must: metal julep cups. The frosty, cold metal is half of what makes this drink so refreshing. Just be sure to hold the cup by the top or bottom, to keep from messing up the frost on the outside and unnecessarily warming the drink. Even better, serve your juleps in the high-class style, with a linen napkin keep your hand warm, your cup cool and catch the condensation.
Mint Juleps For a Small Crowd
Makes 8 servings
Traditionally, mint juleps are built one-by-one in the cup they’re served in, with simple syrup and mint muddled together in the bottom of the cup, ice added, then bourbon poured on top. Some people stir, some don’t. Some add water for a slightly less boozy refresher. Either way, when I’m making juleps for company, I prefer to make a big batch of the cocktail in a mixing glass, then strain it over each cup of ice, which chills the liquid as it flows down. Batching it up just makes things easier (especially refills!). You can cut or double this recipe as needed. For each cocktail it’s simply a ratio of 1 ounce syrup to 3 ounces bourbon, plus a small handful of fresh mint leaves. If you want it more or less sweet, adjust the amount of simple syrup.
1 cup simple syrup
1 cup fresh mint leaves
3 cups bourbon
Crushed ice (lots of it! You’ll need about 2 cups per serving)
Optional: cold sparkling or still water (for a less boozy drink)
8 big mint sprigs, for garnish
In a mixing glass, combine the simple syrup and mint leaves. Gently muddle to release the mint’s oils (too much muddling will make the mint taste bitter and grassy). Add the bourbon, stir, and taste. If you like your drinks sweeter, add more simple syrup. Keep in mind, the ice will dilute the drink considerably.
Fill each julep cup with crushed ice. Divide the bourbon mixture among the cups (1/2 cup per serving), straining over the ice, which will help chill the liquid as it goes down. Top with a little water if desired and garnish with a mint sprig.