Derby Day is almost here. Saturday, May 4, is the 145th Run For The Roses, The Kentucky Derby. Post time is 6:50 pm.
The Kentucky Derby tradition has always been a big part of my family. I have very strong Louisville roots with my father, Bill, working at Churchill Downs while attending the University of Louisville. There is the hat tradition and the singing of “My Old Kentucky Home.” It is the essence of Americana. But one tradition is more important than all of that: the mint julep. This makes or breaks a Derby party.
Growing up, we had a Derby party every year. As kids, we did not partake, but I did learn the process. After finishing college and moving away from home, I continued the tradition. After many, many, many years of making mint juleps for the great race, I learned a few things. One, people like a sweeter version. A mint julep can be a bit strong for some people’s taste. Second, one is enough. This is a sipping drink, meant for long, hot days on a porch.
When I first moved up to northeast Ohio in 2002, I was shocked to find that my favorite bourbons were not in liquor stores, and real, fresh mint stalks were not in the local stores. I may have complained a bit, because the next year that same grocery store had a mountain of fresh mint stalks for Derby Day. And now, of course, with bourbon being in fashion and available everywhere, the first weekend in May is much better. I have my places to get fresh mint, which is crucial. That stalk of mint is really the most important ingredient of “the perfect mint julep.”
There are recipes online at www.kentuckyderby.com and there are many ways to make this classic drink. I have been told that I make a very good mint julep. It is sweeter than the traditional recipes, and a bit fancier perhaps, but worthy of being served in a silver cup. Of course, I do not own silver cups. What I do own is a bunch of actual Derby commemorative glasses from over the years. My mother in law, Sheri, buys us four new ones each year to keep the tradition strong. I give each guest a glass from a different year, so they can keep track of their drink. This is a sippin’ drink, right?
I am giving you the recipe for the perfect mint julep a week early this year so you can plan ahead and do it well. You can use this recipe all summer long for pool parties or a summer soiree. Be fancy, you deserve it!
What you need: One bottle of ReaLemon lemon juice, powdered sugar, crushed ice, good Kentucky bourbon, simple syrup (you make this) and very fresh mint stalks. As an official Maker’s Mark ambassador, I should probably say that Maker’s Mark is a great choice, but I also like Bulleit Frontier Whiskey and Double-Oaked Woodford Reserve. So many good bourbons to choose from.
Here is what you need to do.
First, a day in advance, pick glasses similar to the ones in the photo above. Then, take two shallow bowls, put an inch of powdered sugar in one and an inch of ReaLemon in the other. Then, rim the glasses first in the ReaLemon, then in the powdered sugar. Do all the glasses you plan to use and put all glasses in the freezer for an hour at least, upside down to minimize dripping.
Next, make the simple syrup by adding two cups of sugar to two cups of water, add in a large handful of mint leaves, bringing to a boil for one minute, then letting cool. Refrigerate overnight. Strain out mint leaves the next day.
When ready, fill frosted glasses with crushed ice. Add two shots bourbon and simple syrup (to fill glass). Some folks in Louisville bars also add club soda to make it more appealing to the masses. Give a quick stir and add fresh mint stalk that comes an inch over the rim. It should tickle the nose when sipping, which is the key to success. Smelling the fresh mint with each sweet, ice-cold, bourbon-laced sip is what makes this recipe the best.
Make a julep, experience the day with friends and family and bask in tradition’s light.