Derby day

The mint-julep tradition

May 2, 2011

On the first Saturday in May, I have a standing date with my neighbor Sherene and the Kentucky Derby. Our tradition began in 2003, when I came over for our daily walk with our dogs and Sherene, a horse owner, was watching the pre-race highlights leading up to the Derby.

Flamboyant hats dotted her television screen, crowning many of the 150,000 attendees at Louisville’s historic Churchill Downs. As the announcer began recounting historical facts about injured horses from past races, I found myself tearing up. The dog walk was forgotten, as we settled in to watch.

At the Kentucky Derby, mint juleps are often served in silver or pewter cups.

During that first viewing, the commentators kept referring to the Derby’s official drink: the mint julep. “Got any bourbon?” I asked. Sherene had no bourbon (or mint, the drink’s other main ingredient) on hand, so we focused on the horseflesh instead. That, after all, was the year that Funny Cide became the first gelding since 1929 to win the race.

But in subsequent years, the televised emphasis on the cocktail became irresistible. In fetching close-up, year after year, the screen would display a tall chilled tumbler with thin streams of sweat trickling down its sides, the glass filled with crushed ice glowing a clear golden-brown hue, the rim garnished with a mint sprig.

The drink isn’t tricky; it’s just bourbon, simple syrup, and mint, served over ice. But it took us several years to get around to making our own Derby-day concoction.

A popular Southern drink since the 1700s, the mint julep capitalizes on the region’s many bourbon distilleries. Generally mint juleps are served in glassware, but more ceremonial imbibers prefer silver or pewter mugs with handles; the metals hold a pleasant frost, and the handles prevent the drinker’s hands from melting the ice too quickly. It is, of course, a hot-weather refreshment. And early May in Kentucky can already be sweltering.

The mint julep has been the official beverage of the Kentucky Derby for nearly 75 years; more than 80,000 mint juleps are served during the event. The Churchill Downs racetrack clubhouse began serving the drink in 1875, the first year of the Kentucky Derby, and the julep became the official beverage around 1938, when the track sold it for 75 cents a glass.

A few years ago, Sherene and I watched a Derby show about $1,000 mint juleps served in sterling-silver cups. The excess was actually an annual fundraiser for racing nonprofits; donors got to keep the cups, which are considered collector’s items and change designs every year. (Interested? Buy a cup online before the race at the Woodford Reserve distillery.) We stared, astonished, as racegoers savored their drinks, calculating each sip at about $50.

In 2009, we remembered to search online before the race and found the ingredient list for those $1,000 mint juleps: hand-crushed sugar cane from Sainte Marie on Réunion; mint grown in eastern Turkey; ice made of water from a Norwegian aquifer; and a small batch of Woodford Reserve super-premium bourbon.

Stumped, we settled for Emeril's recipe instead: spearmint leaves, simple syrup, crushed ice, Kentucky bourbon, and a splash of Grand Marnier, garnished with an extra sprig of mint.

Before the race, we gather all our ingredients: fresh spearmint leaves from Sherene’s garden, ice made from local artesian well water, turbinado sugar (from the neighborhood health-food store, so we decide that counts as local), Ezra Brooks Kentucky bourbon, and Grand Marnier.

The sugar goes into homemade simple syrup, heated slowly over low heat. I put the ice into the blender and gently crush it, changing speeds every two seconds; the grinding competes with the roar of the crowd at the Downs after country-western singer LeAnn Rimes sings the national anthem.

Meanwhile, Sherene places spearmint leaves into two of her heirloom crystal goblets, then adds simple syrup. She mashes the leaves with a wooden spoon, filling the kitchen with a sweet, herbal scent, then steps back to let me fill the glasses with ice. We pour in the spirits and carefully jiggle the contents with the wooden spoon to chill the mixture.

Slowly, we each take a sip. The mint is sharp, filling our noses each time we lift our goblets and lingering inside our mouths. The light sweetness of the syrup and the subtle orange flavor of the Grand Marnier mellow the robust, charred-oak taste of the bourbon. All told, the combination tastes like nothing so much as a slightly tangy, sweetened iced tea.

We love it. And hats off to Emeril, for suggesting the unorthodox addition of Grand Marnier.

The race — “the most exciting two minutes in sports” — is about to start. And oh, is it ever a good one, the ultimate come-from-behind upset. Slow out of the starting gate, Mine That Bird thunders past all the other horses, going from last place to first. It’s the second-biggest upset in Derby history since 1913. Tears roll down our faces while the first-place winner’s solid-gold Kentucky Derby trophy dominates the screen.

Holding her glass in the air, Sherene studies the clear, burnt-orange liquid swirling around the shattered ice, and rubs her thumb in the streams of condensation running down the sides. “This is great,” she says. “Truly, the nectar of the South.”

Vera Westbrook is a pharmacist and a reporter for the Tri-County Tribune. She enjoys walking dogs, eating healthy food, and drinking luscious beverages made from scratch.

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1. by anonymous on May 3, 2011 at 8:53 AM PDT

Wonderful essay, Vera--I learned so much, and I look forward to making these on Derby Day!

--Melissa Hart

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