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  • Writer's pictureJoseph Bourbon

Springtime. Derby Time. Julep Time. 

Nothing ushers in the advent of springtime more than the start of horse racing’s triple crown – The Kentucky Derby. And there is no better cocktail to usher in the spring racing calendar than its classic cocktail – the Mint Julep.

Official Bourbon and Drink of the Kentucky Derby

Brown-Forman has held the keys to racing’s iconic cocktail for decades, owning both the official bourbon and the official drink of the Kentucky Derby. Let’s start with the bourbon. If you’ve watched a Derby race in the past several years, you’ve heard that smooth-talking, Kentucky native, George Clooney talking about Kentucky’s two loves – horses and bourbon – and more specifically, Woodford Reserve bourbon.

In addition, Brown-Forman has held the lock on the official drink of the Derby – the mint julep.  For many years, servers at Churchill Downs used Brown-Forman’s Early Times Whisky in mint juleps for the public. While Early Times has a mashbill similar to most bourbons, it is aged in used barrels, and, as such, is not a bourbon. In 2015, with the relaunch of the Old Forester brand, Brown-Forman swapped Old Forester 86 in for the Early Times in its Derby cocktails.  Churchill Downs typically goes through half-a-ton of fresh mint, 60,000 pounds of crushed ice, and over 10,000 bottles of Old Forester mint julep mix during the two days of racing for the Kentucky Oaks and the Kentucky Derby.

That’s One Expensive Mint Julep

While most attendees are sipping one of the 120,000 Old Forester Mint Juleps sold during the derby, a select few are sharing in something a little more exclusive.

A mint julep is a fairly simple cocktail: bourbon, simple syrup, fresh mint, and crushed ice. Each year, though, Woodford Reserve highlights special mint julep cocktails in sterling silver cups for $1,000 and gold-plated cups fetching $2,500.

Created by a local jeweler and featuring scenes from Churchill Downs, the proceeds of these special cocktails have supported numerous charities, including the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund and, most recently, the Jennifer Lawrence Fund. Sponsored by the Kentucky native, the Jennifer Lawrence Fund provides arts access, education and opportunities for young people, artists, and the organizations that serve them.

Watching at Home  

Can’t make it to Louisville for the Derby? Don’t despair – you can throw your own Derby Party at home featuring your own mint julep. Or, if you’d prefer a shortcut to making your own simple syrup, crushing ice, and snipping fresh mint, there are premade mint julep mixes on the market.

If you want to keep it authentic, you can join with the other 120,000 mint juleps made at Churchill Downs on race-day by pouring the same cocktail that’s sold to attendees for $11.  Look for Old Forester Ready-to-Drink Mint Julep.The recipe is fairly simple: unscrew cap; pour over crushed ice; enjoy. At 60 proof, and with a perfect amount of sweetness and fresh mint, this is a delightful way to enjoy the undercard as well as the main race. The bourbon notes are subdued and balanced with the mint and sweetness. Priced at around $25 for a 750ml bottle, this will definitely do in a pinch.

Another product is Maker’s Mark Mint Julep premix. Bottled at 66 proof, and sporting a green wax top, this is a beautiful bottle priced around $30-$35. And, with a similar recipe as the Old Forester product (pour over crushed ice and enjoy), they each make for a quick cocktail. Unfortunately, the Makers carries a very antiseptic mouthwash-like mint flavor, completely overpowering any bourbon notes. There’s no indication on the bottle if it’s natural or artificial mint, but for me – ewwww. Not very pleasant.

One product I stumbled across the other day – Woodford Reserve Mint Julep Simple Syrup. For just $11, I figured it was worth a tasting. The recipe on the bottle is simple – .5 oz of the simple syrup, and 2 oz of Woodford Reserve bourbon. I’m not usually one to mix cocktails with my nicer bourbons like this, but I diligently followed the recipe. And it was worth it. This is the closest you’ll find to a craft-cocktail-bar or Kentucky Derby mint julep without having to muddle sugar or mint. This was a little less sweet than the Old Forester mix, and I definitely tasted more of the bourbon flavors. While I’ll keep picking up the Old Forester Mint Julep mix, this Woodford Reserve Mint Julep Simple Syrup is one I’ll have to add to my collection.

For the money and the experience, it’s hard to beat a mint julep in one hand and a racing card in the other. If you can’t make it to the track for a springtime race, consider the Old Forester Ready-to-Drink Mint Julep or the Woodford Reserve Mint Julep Simple Syrup.

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