Only the mint is the same

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By Brent Schanding

There are a lot of deviations of a traditional mint julep –– the signature drink for the Kentucky Derby –– but if you infuse bourbon, simple syrup, crushed ice and mint “you have everything you need for the drink except the horse,” said Ice Alen, restaurant manager at Bistro 535 in Shelbyville.

Each year almost 120,000 juleps are served at Louisville’s Churchill Downs during the 2-day period of the Kentucky Oaks and the Kentucky Derby. Bartenders require about 10,000 bottles of Early Times Mint Julep Ready-to-Serve Cocktail, 1,000 pounds of freshly harvested mint and 60,000 pounds of ice during the events.  For nearly 20 years, the Early Times label has been the designated official mint julep of the race. 

At Churchill, a sprig of mint is the standard garnishment, but bartenders here put their own spin on the tradition.

Alen substitutes Maker’s Mark in his juleps and sometimes adds a wedge of orange to the drink.

“They’re not really popular except for Oaks and Derby,” he said.  “It’s more of a drink for the occasion.”

Bradley Overstreet, the bartender at Old Stone Inn in Simpsonville, said his choice of bourbon is Woodford Reserve. Overstreet mixes about 2.5 ounces of Woodford in every julep and sometimes adds soda water to cut the sweetness.

Others say it’s best to let the crushed ice dissolve.

Aaron Wilder, a heavy-handed bartender at the Cardinal Club in Simpsonville, said he usually pours about 3 ounces of bourbon –– preferably Woodford Reserve –– in each julep.

“I want to taste more of the bourbon than simple syrup,” he said. In addition to a fresh leaf of mint, Wilder adds a cherry to complement the drink.

Though Wilder’s juleps are popular with some of his club members, he said they can only drink about two before calling it quits.  

Not everyone can stomach juleps. The sweet drink peaks in popularity around this time each year but usually fades faster than the hopes for a Triple Crown winner. And though there’s no substitute for the drink, there’s plenty of knock-offs. 

The Kremlin Colonel is created similarly, with vodka instead of bourbon. The mojito is the julep’s Caribbean sister –– it scratches bourbon for rum.  But ordering either of these at the Derby would be tackier than a Patricia Barnstable Brown pre-party. 

“If you don’t drink bourbon, don’t do the julep –– drink beer,” said Stephanie Blair, bartender at Claudia Sanders Dinner House near Shelbyville. “I love them, but I’m a bourbon drinker.”

Blair –– who said she has missed only one Derby in 36 years –– has perfected her own julep recipe that calls for about 2.5 ounces of Four Roses bourbon. She said it’s important to “bruise” the mint before garnishing because it releases essential oils and intensifies the flavor from the added ingredients.

Mixing the perfect concoction takes time, but Blair said it’s better than relying on pre-mixed solutions, such as the one served at Churchill Downs.

“I wouldn’t want to serve it [a pre-mix] to an out-of-towner because I don’t want them to think that’s what it tastes like,” Blair said.