It’s time to retrieve the hatbox and shine the silver cups. The fastest 2 minutes in sports is May 5, and, since 1938, the official refreshment of the Kentucky Derby has been the mint julep.
Originally from Virginia, juleps were made with spirits like brandy or rum, and they weren’t so much a cocktail as medicinal sippers or morning pick-me-ups, akin to today’s cup of coffee.
The advent of the ice industry in the early 1800s brought the julep to iconic status, and, with brandy out of favor (due to a usable grape shortage), good old American whiskey (preferably bourbon) took its place.
The marriage of mint and bourbon is not only the quintessential Southern cocktail, it also holds the distinction of being the drink for which the modern straw was invented. In Washington, D.C., cigar paper manufacturer Marvin Stone became a big fan of mint juleps after Kentucky Sen. Henry Clay popularized them. However, he wasn’t so fond of the rye grass used to sip the drink piled high with chopped ice, and, in 1888, he patented the “artificial straw” to make sipping more pleasing.
During the two-day Run for the Roses, Churchill Downs serves about 120,000 juleps, using 1,000 pounds of freshly harvested mint.
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Atlanta bartenders have you covered if you can’t make it to the race.
At Sandy Springs’ Food 101, chef Ron Eyester dishes out food specials for Derby Day, and the Barrel Bar will be serving traditional mint juleps made with gently muddled mint, simple syrup, a heap of ice and bourbon. Your first one is complimentary if you are wearing a fancy hat.
Food 101. 4969 Roswell Road, Atlanta. 404-497-9700, food101atl.com.
Beverage director Kellie Thorn offers A Study in Pink, a berry-centric version of the julep, at Empire State South. She combines Maker’s Mark bourbon, berries macerated with mint syrup, amontillado sherry and pink peppercorns. She stumbled upon the “ladies julep” while leafing through a Eugene Walter book. “It’s pink, but it’s complex, balanced, and has a hefty pour of whiskey in it.” The lush green patio at ESS makes a great stand-in for Churchill Downs.
Empire State South. 999 Peachtree St. NW, Atlanta. 404-541-1105, empirestatesouth.com.
You know you want to wear seersucker somewhere. JCT Kitchen & Bar holds an annual Derby Day party on the Westside, with horse races showing on big screens. Chef Brian Horn plans a menu of Southern favorites upstairs, beginning at 3:30 p.m. Sip on their version of the julep, the Photo Finish, which includes a mix of mint, bourbon and lemon that they brighten with a splash of sparkling wine.
JCT Kitchen & Bar. 1198 Howell Mill Road, Atlanta. 404-355-2252, jctkitchen.com.
At the Battery, C. Ellet’s stirs up a mint julep without the mess, but with all the horsepower. Bar manager Jeff Banks cooks Blade and Bow bourbon and mint at low temperature in a sous vide bath for a couple of hours. The oils from the mint are extracted and infused into the bourbon, leaving a clean mint julep poured over a large cube. It’s a beauty.
C. Ellet’s. 2605 Circle 75 Parkway, Atlanta. 678-996-5344, c-ellets.com.
Donetto bartender David Bittick’s riff on a julep incorporates Aveze into a concoction of 4 Roses bourbon, muddled mint, house demerara sugar and ice. The sweet-bitter qualities of the liqueur, made from gentian root, bring gravity and a rounded unctuousness to a softer julep with a brilliant yellow hue.
Donetto. 976 Brady Ave., Atlanta. 404-445-6867, donettoatlanta.com.
Because the Kentucky Derby falls on Cinco de Mayo, Livingston Restaurant + Bar is celebrating with a fiesta de caballo (horse). From 3 to 7 p.m., appetizers and cocktails will be served for $25, with proceeds benefiting Sotherly Foundation, helping wounded veterans. Sipping a mint julep on the patio of the Georgian Terrace, overlooking Peachtree Street, would feel mighty Southern.
Livingston Restaurant + Bar. 659 Peachtree St., Atlanta. 404-897-5000, livingstonatlanta.com.
For a really local julep, join the folks at ASW Distillery in the grandstands — er, tasting room and outdoor lounge. You can sip mint juleps prepared with their Fiddler bourbon while listening to live music beginning at 3 p.m. At 5 p.m, ticketholders can walk over to SweetWater Brewery for a live broadcast of the derby, Fox Bros. barbecue, and SweetWater brews. Tours of both facilities are included. Expect rousing applause if you don a fancy hat. You can get tickets here.
ASW Distillery. 199 Armour Drive NE, Atlanta. 404-590-2279, aswdistillery.com.