First Sunday of May = Derby Day & Mint Juleps

Derby Day is a special day in my house. While I have still not attended the Kentucky Derby (on my bucket list), I have participated in a number of Preaknesses. I do know the splendor of being in the paddock as your favorite mount gets ready and cheering on your horse(s) at the finish line.
As a child of my mother’s household, the Triple Crown consisted of watching all of the pre-race television spots and then choosing your favorite horse. She held the purse and we placed nickle bets. We didn’t do any research back then, as the Internet wasn’t invented yet and I didn’t know about the Daily Racing Form. Nor had I learned about boxing bets or the trifecta…that would come later. Instead, it was a lovely family tradition of a very horse-minded family.

Racing is in our blood

Okay, not my blood per-say. Our family (the Jacobs side) has always had horses back to the old country. Every generation has one of us on horseback. This generation, the horse-crazy one is me.

So where does the racing blood come from? Well, none other than my faithful steed Pressed for Time. During quarantine, with the barns closed to business, he is relaxing at my in-laws with two lovely mares to cavort with. And covort he does!

While Time is a registered Quarter Horse, his racing lineage and height is out of War Admiral, and thus Man-O-War. He also has numerous thoroughbred lines from the very fertile Three Bars. While he never raced a day in his life, he did eventing and stadium jumping which are races over fences.

Enough about horses, lets get to Mint Juleps

One of my friends throws an annual Oscar’s party. This particular year, one of the nominees was War Horse. Another friend creates themed drinks and of course the Mint Julep was featured. It was my first experience where there was too much Julep and not enough mint! The varnish on my teeth has thankfully recovered!!! You will see I add lemon and simple syrup to help my teeth.

Here are my tips and tricks to make a good sipping drink. Its dangerous, so please remember to eat during your Derby festivities and don’t drink and drive. Honestly, where are we going these days anyhow?!

Prep Work & Ingredients

  1. Simple syrup: Make this hours before hand. I use equal parts cane sugar and water. I prefer Domino’s fine sugar because Bawlmore will never leave my heart and it has smaller granules which makes it easier for solubility. Also – DON’T cool the syrup by putting it in the fridge. Let it cool to room temperature, and then you can refrigerate or freeze.
  2. Mint matters: I planted three different kinds of mint with a complete misunderstanding of the plant. I will explain below. Make sure to taste the mint and that you like it!
    Required: 1-4 cups fresh and tasty mint leaves
  3. Bourbon: I chose a Kentucky-made label with a horse. HD recommends TinCup.
  4.  Crushed ice: many julep aficionados request that the ice be as small as possible. This year, I made some specialty ice forms that I want to try against the crushed ice. Remember – its all about the slow melting of the ice. Otherwise, my fridge does a good job.
  5.  The cup: the julep cup is traditionally a sterling silver and/or pewter cup which frosts over in the early afternoon and helps keep the drink cold throughout the day. Any highball or mason jar will do.

My Recipe

Derby Day is the start of mojito season. So I make mint syrup for all my summer drinks as used here! Also, I learned that it is much more difficult to make a batch of this, as we did for my sister’s themed bridal shower. My notes for batches are below.

My best advice, as with every recipe, is to test it and make it your own.

Note: I was strictly told by my grandmother at a young age that you only get one Mint Julep on Derby Day. This notion is reinforced in the Drunken Botanist by Amy Stewart, which explains that southern writer Walker Percy insists that there is 5 ounces of bourbon in one drink. I would be on the floor with that.

Individual Drink Recipe:

  • Cover the bottom of the selected glass with simple syrup
  • Add a layer of mint leaves that you have slapped to get the essential oils out  (leaves must stay whole)
  • Add a whiskey large ice cube or cover with a healthy layer of crushed ice
  • Super fancy – layer crushed ice and mint
  • Add the juice of half a lemon (1/4 cup)
  • Top off with your selected amount of bourbon (2 oz)

Batch Recipe:

  • The night before, mix 3 cups of slapped mint leaves and 750 mL bourbon to infuse overnight. Cover and refrigerate or let is set out at room temperature.
  • Separately mix 1 cup fine sugar with 1 cup boiling water. Allow to cool over night or allow to cool and refrigerate with the infused bourbon mixture.

30 minutes prior to the event:

  • Strain the infused bourbon into a pitcher. Discard the mint.
  • Stir in the two cups simple syrup which is at the same temperature as the bourbon
  • My preference: add 1 cup fresh lemon juice

Serve in glasses with layers of crushed ice and mint and garnish with a sprig of mint and an optional lemon twist.

Misunderstanding mint

It is true that you learn more for what doesn’t work that what does. Here are my big misunderstandings.

  • You can grow mint from seed – Don’t bother! Due to genetic variations it is much more likely you will grow skunky mint. I can tell you because I have an garden full of skunky mint.
  • Mint can grow anywhere – Not for good mint! Mint prefers 6+ hours of sun, with some shelter during those super hot summer afternoons. While they can and do grow in the shade, the leaves will be skunky and of no use for those much needed adult beverages. But mint can get sunburn so monitor your plants.
  • Mint is a weed and can grow from any small bit of plant – Not true again! I thought for sure I could use a bit of a runner or a leftover stem to root a new plant. Best bet – the stem or runner must have 2+ true leaves for the plant to be viable.
  • Store cut mint in the herb section can be grown – Most commercial growers spray their produce with growth inhibitors. It will be hard to get it to root.
  • My recommendations are:
  • Get a mint cutting with 4+ leaves from a friend. Root it in just a glass of water.
  • Buy a mint plant from the store – taste the leaves before you buy!
  • Grow mint in a spot with 4+ hours of sun with shade available in the heat of the day. Under my deck stairwell works perfect.
  • Happy drinking everyone!


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