May 2, 2014 at 11:18 AM ET
Mint juleps and the Kentucky Derby are synonymous. The sweetened mint and whiskey concoction “has been the track drink since the very beginning,” said Fred Minnick, bourbon authority for the Kentucky Derby museum and author of “Whiskey Women.”
But why the mint julep?
A cocktail for the Derby needed to be very simple. “There are a lot of people there; there isn’t time to make anything complex,” he said. In fact, the official cocktail is served straight from the bottle. Churchill Downs will pour some 10,000 bottles of Early Times Mint Julep – a ready-to-serve mix made with (gasp!) whiskey, not bourbon – at the Derby.
For those who want to pour a Kentucky bourbon cocktail at home the first Saturday of May, try this simple mint julep recipe. But it’s not the only traditional cocktail. When it comes to the history of Derby cocktails, Minnick says there are a number of options for “off-site parties,” adding, “there's one that stands the test of time and that's the Seelbach Cocktail.”
“The lore … says someone at the old Seelbach Bar was enjoying a Manhattan when some Champagne was spilled,” explained Eron Plevan of Louisville's historic Seelbach Hotel. When the bubbly landed in the bourbon drink, the idea for “what's essentially a Champagne orange Manhattan” was sparked. “What's unique is how much bitters it has in it,” Plevan said. “It became the Seelbachs's signature drink, although during Prohibition it goes underground.”
In 1995, the recipe was rediscovered and the Seelbach Cocktail returned, today made up of 1 ounce Old Forester bourbon (100 proof); 1/2 oz Cointreau; and seven dashes each Angostura and Peychaud's bitters; topped with Champagne (while the recipe calls for five ounces, Plevan prefers two).
“Coming out of Prohibition there was kind of a free-for-all by the alcohol companies to capture the Kentucky Derby,” Minnick told TODAY.com. “That led to many offerings for what they would suggest for watching the race. Probably the most common was the Highball. [It] was a big-time cocktail at the Kentucky Derby, second only to the mint julep. It's the most traditional bourbon cocktail: two ounces of bourbon and couple pieces of ice topped with ginger ale. If you want to get fancy, put a lemon on it.”
Another popular Derby drink in the 1930s was the Brown Derby. “Because of the name association, it becomes very popular to serve at parties,” Minnick said, adding that you might see variations on the drink. His version takes 1.5 ounces of a high-rye bourbon such as Four Roses; 1 ounce of fresh grapefruit juice (it's imperative, he says, to not use canned); and ½ ounce Kentucky honey syrup (1 part honey and 1 part warm water). Shake and serve up.
The Old Fashioned is a Louisville tradition that Albert Schmid, author of “The Old Fashioned,” says without a doubt is a Derby drink. Though the lore that it's a creation of Louisville's Pendennis Club has been found to be untrue, the social club, which hosts a popular post-Derby party, has adopted it, he said.
How do you make the original cocktail? “The drink is more of a concept than an actual recipe,” Schmid said. “An Old Fashioned should have a sweetening agent, it should have bitters, it should have a whiskey. And then there's the fruit – the Pendennis puts a cherry at the bottom. And it should probably have a little bit of orange peel squeezed over the top. If done properly, really, there is some ceremony to an Old Fashioned.”