Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash
By Liz Crowe
Dedicated to all the non-Kentuckians I have educated about the holiday on the first Saturday of May….
Firstly: the question “when is the Kentucky Derby?” has a simple answer. It is always, forever and ever amen (but not this year!), the first Saturday of May. It can be any number on the calendar of May, as long as that number is one through seven. If someone says to you the Derby is on May 8th or 15th or something else ridiculous, you now know what to say to that.
(Update: this year, due to circumstances I’m sure you’re all aware of, the Derby will be held on Friday, September 4th, 2020.)
Secondly: I will not be addressing the ongoing animal welfare issues raised by horse racing. I don’t have an answer other than, being the Kentuckian that I am, horses are part and parcel of my upbringing, and the industry built around them has employed thousands of people and will continue to do so whether they race the animals or not. We shall leave the ethics of the sport to someone who has more knowledge about that than I.
Finally: as you might suspect, this is yet another bourbon column (hooray!), so if that makes you sad, skip it. If not, let’s make a few drinks, shall we? But first, some context.
You might not know this: most Louisville residents do not attend the Derby. It’s expensive. It sells out years in advance. Most everybody has already done the cheap seats option in the infield. Up until about ten years ago, “Townie Day” was the Friday before, when the Kentucky Oaks was run. The Oaks is a stakes race that is also called the “Derby for fillies” (a.k.a. all female horses). Now that the Oaks day is almost as crowded and expensive as Derby day, many natives hit the track on the Thursday before, hence the “Thurby” designation, if you’re local. Anyways, now there’s serious money to be made doing an Air BNB with your own house and getting out of town that weekend.
Personally, I’ve done the infield twice. One of those times was when I was a student at the University of Louisville, which is located about eight blocks away from the track. It’s a serious rite of passage at U of L. I highly recommend it. It’s $50 a ticket now, I think. I paid $15, but I’m old, so there you go. When I went, you did things like pour your bourbon into Ziploc bags and bury them under a pile of chicken in a KFC bucket, since you’re technically not allowed to bring your own liquor in. Not sure how that works these days, but I know my kids have gone and said they were able to use a few of Mom and Dad’s old tricks. Crowe Tradition. We’re very proud.
Oh, and did I mention that if you’re there to watch horse racing, you should avoid the infield? You might feel the ground rumble a few times if you’re in line for the porta-potties, or possibly get a drink because you either ran out of your own or weren’t as wily as the Crowes hiding it on your way in, but mostly you’re there to party.
Moving up from the infield, you can get grandstand seats. These are the first-come-first-served chairs and benches (but you mostly stand) that actually put you pretty darn close to the action.
Private boxes are located a level up from that, and are owned by families and businesses. If you own one, you must populate it during the racing calendar so that it’s not a bad investment for a business, as those tickets (but not the Derby weekend ones) are reasonable and can be given out to clients and whatnot.
Then there’s Millionaire’s Row at the top — private, air-conditioned, food and drinks included. Good luck with getting that. And if you do go, be sure to invite me, your favorite booze writer and relocated Kentuckian, okay?
However, whether you’re a millionaire or an infield partier, you can always imbibe the official drink of the event: the mint julep. During that first weekend of May, Churchill Downs will prepare and sell upwards of 130,000 mint juleps.
The drink itself originated in Virginia (also known as a horsey state). It was primarily a rum, brandy, or gin drink infused with sweet syrup and mint, and used to be used medicinally or as a morning jolt since Starbucks wasn’t around to satisfy that need. In John Davis’s 1803 book Travels of Four and a Half Years in the United States of America, a mint julep was called a “dram of spirituous liquor that has mint steeped in it, taken by Virginians of a morning.”
And what’s up with that word “julep?” It derives from the ancient Persian gulab, which is a sort of sweetened rosewater. If you’ve ever had gulab jamun at an Indian restaurant, that’s similar. In classical Arabic, the word became julab, which became the Latin julapium.
Bourbon became associated with the drink thanks to the cost of the other ingredients. Bourbon was a local, (at the time) cheap option. And we are all so much better for it, are we not? As of 1938, it was named the Official Drink of the Run for the Roses, and if you can picture the beer and hot dog hawkers at a baseball game, you have a good idea of how you can get one that weekend at the track — minus the tossing of them, naturally.
Of course, there is an official bourbon of the Derby. It’s Woodford Reserve, and if you harken back to our super useful discussion of the types of bourbon we had a couple of months ago, you’ll know what I mean when I say Woodford is a “high rye” style of bourbon that has more of a bite to it, thanks to the recipe that is by definition 70% corn (or it’s not a bourbon, remember?), and more rye than barley in the remaining recipe and mash.
Woodford claims that the entirety of the whiskey in its Woodford’s Master’s Collection is the product of pot distillation. For its main portfolio, the pot-distilled whiskey is blended with the column-distilled whiskey produced at the Brown-Forman Distillery in Louisville, KY.
By way of explanation as to why this matters: pot stills, the oldest brewing style, are believed to create more flavorful spirits because the process reuses small, highly concentrated quantities of alcoholic liquid called “heads” and “tails.” Column stills, also known as coffey or continuous stills, run continuously, making them more cost-efficient. I’ve been privy to plenty of distilleries in an attempt to understand both of these processes. I recommend that we all consider it “magic” and simply enjoy the end results.
At the Derby, your julep is served in one of the official derby glasses with the official derby art for that year. I collect these. I have them going back into the ‘50s, and the ones where I actually drank out of them at the event itself hold many memories. I’ve observed the Derby from three of the four available areas. I own one really expensive hat and four not-so-much (FYI, you don’t need a hat in the infield, but it’s fun to get creative with them). I can and will say with 100% certainty that this is an event that could fill out a bucket list for most anyone — if attending fancy parties in hats while drinking a lot of bourbon, during which it could rain as if the heavens have opened up or be ninety degrees and require sunscreen, is on yours.
Now about that drink…
It’s an easy one, but one that is better the purer your ingredients are — which is to say, get some fresh mint and make your own simple syrup, crush some ice, and read on.
- Wash hands in mint-scented soap
- Pour your favorite Kentucky bourbon in a glass (mine’s going to be Jefferson’s Reserve, for the record)
Oh, hang on. Did I say that last part out loud? Sorry.
The ACTUAL recipe (for a drink that I do enjoy once a year) is as follows:
- 2 ounces high-proof bourbon
- .5 ounces simple syrup
- A handful of fresh mint
- Crushed ice
Muddle the mint in the bottom of a highball glass to release the essential oils. Add the rest of the ingredients. Garnish with a fresh sprig of mint. Enjoy.
Technically, if we’re being purists, the drink should be served in a silver or pewter glass, and only held around the rim or at the bottom, so that the frostiness that forms on the cup isn’t adulterated, so to speak. If you hit it big on one of the races prior to the Derby, be sure to blow some of it on the $1,000 solid silver cup offered by Woodford, or (even better) the $2,000 gold cup option. Yes, these are real things.
I realize that there are a lot of not-great traditions surrounding this event — the singing of My Old Kentucky Home at the beginning (which will make me cry), being one of the more awkward ones. And, of course, there is that whole horse-racing-is-bad-on-many-levels issue. I won’t argue any of this with you. However, the celebration of the first Saturday of May with sickly sweet bourbon drinks, hats, and gambling is one I have imported to three different countries. The Derby party I helped throw in Istanbul was a successful fund raiser for an animal shelter. We celebrated in England by attending the original Derby (pronounced “Darby”) complete with a really dangerous picnic of fresh strawberries and champagne. In Japan, we had to bootleg a little booze into town since it’s so expensive there, but we had a fun time anyway.
If you ever have an excuse to be in Louisville the week leading up to the Derby, go. There’s something fun to do every single day — including a balloon race, a steamboat race on the Ohio River, a mini marathon, outdoor concerts, fireworks, and (one of my favorite Derby week traditions) the Chuck Wagon. These pop-up outdoor original food trucks serve BBQ and burgoo — a stew with lots of icky stuff in it that is, in a word, delicious with your lightly sweetened tea.
So, that’s your Derby primer. Get a great hat and a spiffy spring dress with some matching pastel heels. Bring plenty of money for betting and bourbon. You might need a rain parka and umbrella, or you might need sunscreen and sunglasses. Regardless, you’ll have an amazing time. It’s pretty much guaranteed.
For the first time since 1945, the Kentucky Derby will be postponed and held on the first Saturday of September instead of May. It’s with good reason, and we all know what that is, so I won’t belabor it here. Suffice it to say, I will be ready and very likely in attendance on Oaks Day, which will be Friday, September 4, 2020. Cheers!