Sipping mint juleps, out on the porch
For you my darling, I'll always hold a torch
-- Television, In World
According to Churchill Downs, more than 80,000 mint juleps are served at the track on Kentucky Derby and Oaks days. That's a lot of bourbon and syrup, though at the same time, the official Derby drink gets about as much love as a Red Sox fan in Yankee Stadium.
It's been called a, "mouth wash cocktail" and less complimentary names. A friend who penned a piece about reasonably priced bourbon in Nougat magazine (scroll down to p. 23) quoted Liquor Barn employee Morgan Wright saying, "Everyone should try a mint julep at least once," -- indicating that might be enough.
The julep. It's a drink many people love to hate, especially around the first Saturday in May. But you won't hear that here.
Despite growing up in Virginia and starting my career in Georgia, the first time this distinctly Southern drink touched my lips was the morning of the 1998 Kentucky Derby. It was one of the experiences I engaged as part of a "Derby virgin" story I wrote that year -- and a rare chance to drink on the clock.
It was interesting and well worth a second try -- after I was off the clock, of course. Over the years, I looked forward to the coming of Derby season and Celeste Susany's colorful julep bottles for Early Times.
On a few occasions, I even became adventurous, whipping up some julep on my own. Somehow, the first few times I worked with really complicated recipes that involved things such as mashing mint leaves and wringing them into bourbon. One of those occasions was a visit by my mother, so I figured I should serve up this signature Kentucky beverage. That had to be the strongest drink my poor mom had in 50 years.
Maybe I should just go with that ET pre-mixed cocktail, I thought.
But I was feeling a little bold earlier this week. Sharon Thompson ran a julep recipe in Sunday's A La Carte section -- it's the same recipe Churchill Downs prescribes -- and I gave it a shot. It was really simple, boiling up a syrup of sugar and water, putting mint sprigs in it and refrigerating it overnight. The next day, it was just a matter of pouring the right combo over crushed ice. I now really appreciate my new refrigerator which dispenses ice crushed.
The home-made julep was wonderful. I like Early Times' brew, but this formula backed off the syrup just a bit so it complimented, not overpowered, the bourbon. It was Four Roses bourbon, by the way, which is somewhat appropriate because:
- The rose is, of course, the Derby flower
- Earliest accounts of a julep- or julab-type drinks utilized rose petals
Several accounts, including Joe Nickell's book The Kentucky Mint Julep, actually point to the first mentions of a mint julep being in Virginia, so maybe this was more of a natural to this native of the Old Dominion. And there are nice stories about mint being a herb of hospitality and welcoming. Mint julep equals Southern Hospitality. We have a lot of visitors this week. I get it.
And I like it. So, love to hate it all you want. In this corner, we'll always carry a torch for the mint julep.
Moms and dads know that at Derby parties, kids see you with this cool-looking drink with the mint sprig in it, and they want one too. Here's some help for them and you, if you want the signature Derby drink but shouldn't have or don't want the alcohol.:
At the Copley residence, we did the same recipe as the Downs idea, but substituted Ale-8-One for the bourbon. I don't know if that qualifies as a julep, but my daughter liked it, and keeps the main ingredient in the Bluegrass State.
Do you have a favorite mint julep recipe or story? Comment, below.