Saturday, May 7th is the 137th "Run for the Roses" - the Kentucky Derby. But enough about sports, let's talk about booze. Is there any other sporting event with an official drink? If so, I can't recall. The Kentucky Derby however is synonymous with one drink--The Mint Julep. The mixture of sugar, bourbon and mint, served over crushed ice in a frosty metal cup is a must-have on derby day.
(image courtesy of lapetitecoquin.blogspot.com)
It's been said that what the Martini was to the 20th century--the Mint Julep is to the 19th century. It played a crucial role as an ambassador for American drinks around the world. While it became the official drink of the Kentucky Derby in 1938, it was referenced as far back as the early 1800s. Then, it was still loosely defined as a mixture of mint, sugar and spirit. The spirit was not at that time specified to be whiskey, but today is always made with bourbon whiskey. These early mint juleps were served in the southeastern states as a morning pick-me-up for farmers.Juleps originated in ancient Persia, where they were referred to as gulabs. These drinks were a mixture of water and rose petals and served as a light, aromatic refreshment. Gulab drinks evolved into flavored syrups that could be used as a vehicle for medicine. Rose petals were frequently used and later mint as well. Today, pre-mixed rose water is used in a lot of Middle Eastern cooking as well as in several cocktails.
Mint juleps today are always made with bourbon and are traditionally served in a metal cup, piled high with crushed ice and garnished with a sprig of fresh mint. The metal cup conducts heat away from the drink, creating a frosty coating on the exterior of the cup, and making a cool, refreshing drink for a hot day.
You can't talk about the mint julep without mentioning legendary New Orleans bartender Chris McMillian. I attended a seminar led by McMillian at Tales of the Cocktail in Vancouver this past March. He demonstrated how to properly make a mint julep while also sharing the history of the drink. And while he mixed, he recited a poem by Soule Smith, which I've excerpted below:
From "The Very Dream of Drinks" (courtesy of spiritsreview.com)
Then comes the zenith of man's pleasure. Then comes the julep---the mint julep. Who has not tasted one has lived in vain. The honey of Hymettus brought no such solace to the soul; the nectar of the Gods is tame beside it. It is the very dream of drinks, the vision of sweet quaffings. The Bourbon and the mint are lovers. In the same land they live, on the same food they are fostered. The mint dips its infant leaf into the same stream that makes the bourbon what it is. The corn grows in the level lands through which small streams meander. By the brook-side the mint grows. As the little wavelets pass, they glide up to kiss the feet of the growing mint, the mint bends to salute them. Gracious and kind it is, living only for the sake of others. The crushing of it only makes its sweetness more apparent. Like a woman's heart, it gives its sweetest aroma when bruised. Among the first to greet the spring, it comes. Beside the gurgling brooks that make music in the pastures it lives and thrives.
Around Seattle this Saturday are a number of Kentucky Derby parties, where you can don your fancy hats, sip mint juleps and watch the ponies. If you want to make a mint julep on your own, I've included a recipe below as well.
Bottleneck Lounge throws a Kentucky Derby party every year, replete with enormous hats, formal outfits, and glass upon glass of mint julep. This year's julep will feature Buffalo Trace Bourbon, and they'll also be offering discounts on top shelf bourbons, which is great for anyone that prefers their bourbon unadorned. Doors open at 2pm, the traditional singing of My Old Kentucky Home will be at 2:50pm and post time for the race is 3pm. Food will be available for sale from the Skillet food truck from 2-4pm, and there will be prizes for best hat and best dressed awarded at 4pm.
Tavern Law will celebrate the Kentucky Derby with a party sponsored by Maker's Mark Bourbon. The party includes the live broadcast of the races from 3-5pm. There will be Maker's Mark drink specials all night and a special prize for the best-dressed derby goer.
Liberty will also be showing the race on their backroom big screen TV at 3pm. There will be Knob Creek mint juleps, specials on Four Roses bourbon and BBQ.
The Mint Julep
A dozen or so fresh mint leaves, plus a sprig to garnish
1oz simple syrup
Place mint and .25oz syrup in a julep cup or large old-fashioned glass.
Bruise the mint leaves with a wooden muddler or barspoon, pressing them against the sides of the cup.
Loosely pack the cup with finely crushed ice, then pour in the bourbon.
Drizzle .75oz syrup on top and garnish with a spanked mint sprig. (That is, place the garnish in the palm of one hand and slap it with the other once to bruise the mint and release the oils).
Use a dry julep strainer to lightly dust the mint with superfine sugar.