Wide-brimmed hats, high-end cigars and champion horses are certainly marks of the Kentucky Derby. But how about a $1,000 drink?
For the 11th year, Woodford Reserve will serve a $1,000 version of the Mint Julep -- the official drink of the Derby -- in a silver-plated cup with a 24-karat gold straw. The drink,
comes with free refills, but the idea isn't so much the status of drinking out of a gold straw as raising money. This year the proceeds will benefit the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund.
This over-the-top version of the Mint Julep is only available at the V.I.P. Bar at Churchill Downs, and there will be just 105 of them made this weekend.
But an estimated 120,000 glasses of the standard Mint Julep will be served to the masses during the course of the two-day event, and the drink has nearly as much tradition as the race itself.
Brown-Forman Distillery's vice president of whiskey innovation Chris Morris is a bit of a history buff, and he'll tell you that social gatherings in Kentucky traditionally have involved the state's two passions: Horses and whiskey.
"We have a newspaper story (from) 1816 mentioning that the Mint Julep and the cup were awarded to a race champion," said Morris, who is also Woodford Reserve's Master Distiller. "So, for 200 years, the Mint Julep and horses were hand in hand, so it's just tradition. That's why there is a connection, it just goes back to our colonial roots."
During those two centuries, the Mint Julep -- a simple, refreshing, bourbon-based beverage -- has become synonymous with the Kentucky Derby, which runs this year on May 7.
Legend has it that the drink made its race debut right around the time Churchill Downs opened in 1875 because track founder Meriwether Lewis Clark, Jr. grew fresh mint outside the clubhouse for just this purpose.
But the drink wasn't christened the official drink of the Derby until 1933, Morris says, and it didn't reach its zenith until many years later.
In 2015, there was quite a shake-up with regard to the Julep as it went back to the original recipe. For 18 years before the 2015 Derby, the Mint Juleps made at the racetrack were made with whiskey, not bourbon.
But in its push to make bourbon the official spirit of Louisville, Brown-Forman Distillery, maker of Woodford Reserve, decided to pull its Early Times whiskey as a Derby sponsor and replace it with Old Forester bourbon. The Old Forester Mint Juleps are a premix served in bottles, then poured over ice throughout Churchill Downs, while Woodford Reserve, the distillery's premium bourbon, is used in the made-to-order Mint Juleps.
Either way, the Mint Julep is among the simpler things in life with four ingredients, a sipping straw and a metal tumbler make for the perfect refreshment.
"It's a simple drink, but you have to make it properly," said Morris, who will be mixing Mint Juleps at Churchill Downs this weekend. "You need bourbon, sugar, mint and ice. I mix my sugar with the (bourbon), but you can use water, too.
"You take the mint and crush it, bruise it, muddle it in the bottom of the cup to release the aroma and the mint oil. You have to be careful because you can use too much mint. A little bit goes a long way.
"Then you add your syrup (a 50-50 blend of sugar and bourbon or sugar and water). The sugar must be powdered, so it melts completely. Then add your crushed ice, just shovel it in very loose, before you add your bourbon, put in your sipping straw, and your garnish and then pour your bourbon (two ounces)."
The result is a beautiful drink, a deep green on the bottom of the glass, followed by the amber bourbon, the white ice and a sprig of mint. But what's with the straw?
"The drink is on the bottom of the cup, if you try to drink it without, all that ice is just going to tumble out over your face," Morris said.
As with the precise building of the drink, you shouldn't use just any straw with a Mint Julep. A slender mixing straw is the standard for sipping. The Julep, which finds its roots in medicinal brews in Virginia and began its incarnation as the Virginia Dram, should last a long time through the sipping straw.
"It's going to be a leisurely drink," Morris said. "I have done a lot of experimentation with the Julep, and it can last that hour between races. You pace it, place your bets and by the time you're done, it's time for the next race."
Morris suggests pairing your julep with a lamb dish, country ham and biscuits or pecan pie, all of which are available at the higher-end outlets at Churchill Downs. Other potential, and more accessible, pairings are pimento macaroni-and-cheese, black-eyed pea salad or Southern-style ribs.
Mint Juleps are traditionally served in metal cups -- again harkening back to colonial days, according to Morris. Settlers traditionally carried their own metal cups, and now the cold, frosted tumbler is as much a part of experience as the drink itself.
"If you get a beautiful meal on a paper plate, you're going to think about the meal differently," Morris said. "So much of the experience is visual and when you see that drink in the frosty cup, it just sets you up to enjoy."
Mint Julep Recipe
Courtesy of KentuckyDerby.com
- 2 cups sugar
- 2 cups water
- Sprigs of fresh mint
- Crushed ice
- Old Forester Kentucky Bourbon
- Silver Julep Cups
Make a simple syrup by boiling sugar and water together for five minutes. Cool and place in a covered container with six or eight sprigs of fresh mint, then refrigerate overnight. Make one julep at a time by filling a julep cup with crushed ice, adding one tablespoon mint syrup and two ounces of Old Forester Kentucky Bourbon. Stir rapidly with a spoon to frost the outside of the cup. Garnish with a sprig of fresh mint.