You say “Derby,” I say “julep.” The bourbon-based drink, with roots dating back to the 1800s, is synonymous with the upcoming Kentucky Derby – and marathon day drinking. Containing only four ingredients (spirit, mint, sugar, and ice) it’s deceptively simple, which means it’s incredibly complicated to get it right.
“That raw heat of the alcohol is moderated by sugar; adding simple syrup calms that mouthfeel a little bit and doesn’t give that ‘Kentucky hug’ across the throat and the chest, as you get with a strong liquor,” says Troy Ritchie, bourbon steward and sommelier at J. Graham’s Cafe in the Brown Hotel in Louisville. Mint, which grows wild and plentiful in Kentucky, balances out the rye component in many bourbons.
Besides the perfect calibration of ingredients, serving temperature is vital to the drink. “Crushed ice is an integral part of it,” says Ritchie. “Keeping that drink super-cold allows it to dilute ever so slightly; it’s [a drink] you sip and savor over a long period of time.”
During Derby, many bars around Louisville pivot away from the classic preparation and create unique twists on the famed “bourbon snow cone,” as Ritchie calls them. Here are five modern takes on the Derby classic.
Popular brunch spot J. Graham’s has day-drinking cocktails perfected. Ritchie adds 14 Hands brut (specifically chosen to tie into the Derby’s horse theme; the wine’s name refers to a method of measuring a horse’s height) to the Derby Day quaffer as “the wine will freshen, brighten and give it that textural, spritz feel on the palate.”
*Served at J. Graham's
Is everything better with bacon? Red Herring certainly makes a case for it with this pork-centric julep. The year-old craft cocktail bar offers a list of 100 classic cocktails and eight to 10 contemporary tipplers. For Derby, the multifaceted space, which features live jazz most nights, created four new versions of the minty classic, including this one.
*Served at Red Herring
Julep in the Afternoon
At locally minded restaurant Decca, owner Annie Pettry looks to her community for inspiration. Instead of bourbon, she highlights brandy aged in bourbon barrels from the neighborhood distillery Copper & Kings. Brandy has historically been a substitute for bourbon in some julep preparations, and Pettry pays homage to the drink’s history with this spirit. She soaks mint leaves in Copper and Kings absinthe, then lights them on fire to disperse the absinthe and add a smoky, bourbon-inspired flavor to her concoction.
*Served at Decca
While rotating art exhibitions engage the eyes at this buzzed-about bar, certified spirits specialist Dane Durand appeals to other senses with his “Original Recipe,” a play on KFC’s secret blend of herbs and spices. “The goal is to get flavor, orthonasal (perceptions of aromas through the mouth) and retronasal (perceptions of aromas through the nose), to amplify each other,” says Durand.
*Served at Proof on Main
Louisville bar veteran Jeremy Johnson strongly believes all modern craft cocktails are rooted in classics, and Meta’s menu, which traces the lineage of the staff’s creations, reads like a family tree. Their Kentucky Delight brings flavors of the Middle East to the Kentucky classic.
“The saffron and rose add floral and herbal notes, which give a bit of lightness to the brandy,” says bar manager Amy Fisher. “The black pepper and cardamom add a little punch of flavor that compliments the aged spirit. The date palm sugar adds a rich and nutty flavor that unites all of the flavors. The Kentucky Delight comes from the marriage of those flavors and the typical use of powdered sugar to garnish mint juleps, which brought the dessert Turkish Delight to mind.”
*Served at Meta