Derby & Juleps


On Saturday, May 7, many of us will be stressing about our second week of finals. In order to soothe your frazzled nerves, this writer prescribes a two-minute study break. Not just any brief study break mind you, but “the fastest two minutes in sports.” HLS students, I call on you to celebrate the 131st running of the Kentucky Derby in style – a mint julep in one hand and your Con Law outline in the other… room.

The Derby is a grand American tradition that you can’t afford to let pass you by, and the psychic benefits of a mint julep are unparalleled. 19th Century Kentucky journalist and attorney J. Soule Smith praised the julep as “The zenith of man’s pleasure… who has not tasted one has lived in vain.” In order to ensure that my fellow students do not live in vain, here are the essentials you need to know about the Derby, this year’s horses, and the mint julep.

The Derby is a 1-1/4 mile stakes race for three-year-old thoroughbred horses at Churchill Downs in Louisville, KY held on the first Saturday in May. The Derby is known as “The Run for the Roses” because the winner is presented with a garland of red roses, a tradition dating back to 19th Century. It is the first race of the U.S. Triple Crown, which also includes the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico in Baltimore, MD (May 21 this year) and the Belmont Stakes at Belmont Park in Elmont, NY (June 11 this year). The U.S. Triple Crown was first recognized in 1930 when Gallant Fox became the second horse to win all three races, and a sportswriter borrowed the term from the English Triple Crown. Only eleven horses have ever won the Triple Crown, the most recent being Affirmed in 1978. Since then, ten horses have won the first two races but faltered at the longer Belmont, including Smarty Jones last year, and Funny Cide in 2003.

Although the likely nineteen-horse line-up hadn’t been finalized at press time, this year’s Derby appears to be one of the more open fields in recent memory. Favorite Bellamy Road (5:2 odds) won the Wood Memorial by an astounding 17 _ lengths and with a stratospheric 120 Beyer Speed Figure (BSF) (a standardized speed rating adjusted for track speed, distance and race time – by comparison, Smarty Jones scored a 118 for his record-breaking 11 _ length win in last year’s Preakness). But he faces stiffer competition in Arkansas Derby winner Afleet Alex (3:1) (BSF: 108), Blue Grass Stakes winner Bandini (7:2) (BSF: 103), Florida Derby winner High Fly (6:1), Florida Derby runner-up Noble Causeway (8:1), and Tampa Bay Derby winner Sun King (10:1) (BSF: 104). Greeley’s Galaxy (25:1) (BSF: 106), winner of the Illinois Derby but not nominated for the Triple Crown, may compete as the Kentucky Derby’s first supplemental entrant if owner B. Wayne Hughes decides to pay a $200,000 supplemental entry fee. Some are looking at the Derby as a contest between Trainers Nick Zito and Todd Pletcher; Zito has five horses in the Derby (Bellamy Road, High Fly, Noble Causeway, Sun King, Andromeda’s Hero), while Todd Pletcher has three (Bandini, Flower Alley, Coin Silver).

The mint julep has been the official drink of the Kentucky Derby for nearly a century, and over 80,000 juleps will be poured at Churchill Downs over Derby weekend. Though inexorably tied to Kentucky, the julep was likely invented in Virginia or Georgia, but can trace its roots back to ancient Arabia, where a drink called a “julab” was made with rose petals and water. As the drink migrated through the Mediterranean towards Europe, native mint replaced the rose petals. Finally, Southerners, working on the irrefutable premise that anything can be improved with bourbon, developed the mint julep as we know it today. The proper way to make a mint julep is the subject of much debate in some circles. Below are two recipes, one of which requires some preparation beforehand but comes out a bit better.

Instant Mint Julep: Muddle 4-6 mint leaves with 1 tsp. superfine sugar and a splash of water in a julep cup. Fill the cup with crushed ice. Pour 2 oz. bourbon and garnish with a sprig of fresh mint.

Overnight Mint Julep: Make simple syrup by boiling two cups of water and two cups of sugar for five minutes. Pour the syrup into a closed container with 6-8 sprigs of mint and refrigerate overnight to make mint syrup. Fill a julep cup with ice; then add 1 tbsp of mint syrup and 2 oz bourbon, and garnish with a sprig of fresh mint. For those who like their drinks a bit sweeter and weaker, you can even out the syrup and bourbon at a 1:1 ratio (or higher).

Ideally, a mint julep is made in a silver julep cup, but a highball glass (ok, even a small plastic cup) should work just fine. Crushed ice, as opposed to ice cubes, is an essential element of a proper julep. To make crushed ice at home, I’ve found it easiest to place ice cubes in a clean pillowcase and crush them with a mallet or hammer – paper or plastic bags usually tear and spill out much of your ice. Sprigs of mint are available in the produce section at the Star Market in Porter Square.

Juleps should be made with a good (but not too good!) bourbon. For bourbons that are available locally, I recommend Jim Beam Black, Wild Turkey 101 or Old Grand-Dad Bonded (100 proof). If you’re on a tight budget, Evan Williams 7 year old will work just fine. If you want to take a step up in price range, Woodford Reserve and Knob Creek make outstanding juleps. If you plan to use a top-shelf bourbon, I recommend following the famous mint julep recipe of Louisville newspaper publisher Henry Marse Watterson, who described an intricate process for the preparation of the mint and other ingredients, concluding with the instruction, “toss all the other ingredients out the window and drink the bourbon straight.”

Regardless of how you make your mint julep, remember to stand and raise your glass during the playing of My Old Kentucky Home. And then enjoy the races – forget about finals for at least two minutes and think about nothing else than fast thoroughbreds racing for glory and the sweet interaction of mint, ice and bourbon.

Dan Alban has a substantial bourbon collection and follows the Henry Marse Watterson recipe on a regular basis.

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