If we learned anything of Derby juleps from “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved,” it’s that the famous day is not deprived of libation or tradition, in equal parts.
“I ordered a Margarita with ice, but he wouldn’t hear of it: ‘Naw, naw…what the hell kind of drink is that for Kentucky Derby time? What’s wrong with you, boy?’ He grinned and winked at the bartender. ‘Goddam, we gotta educate this boy. Get him some good whiskey…'”
Dating back past the inception of The Kentucky Derby–and championing as the event’s official drink for roughly a century–the Mint Julep is quintessentially southern and entirely enticing on a hot afternoon in the sun (giant hat optional, though of course we’ve got a guide for that too). As you’ll learn from our six All Star bartenders at PRANCIN’: A Derby Day Party this Saturday, the ingredients may vary though the traditional essence boils down, so to speak, to fresh mint, bourbon, sugar and water. We stopped by and chatted with nearly all of our mixologists–with one or two surprises left for the party itself–and learned how each of these (unlimited!!) cocktails are getting crafted for your enjoyment on Saturday.
Julep Under Flor
Rappahannock River Oysters
The first thing Rappahannock’s head barkeep stresses is that he’s not reinventing the wheel.
“To me, a Mint Julep is one of those drinks that’s already perfect. That’s why everybody loves it … My goal is to try and not mess with it too much.”
While Fetherston stresses his respect for the drink, what he doesn’t emphasize is his own creativity that shines through in his finished product. He’s managed somehow to create a julep that harkens back to a traditional recipe, though he skews untraditional in his addition of Gutierrez-Colosia sherry–he assures us he’s always got sherry on the brain at Rappahannock, . This addition keeps it drier than a normal Mint Julep, whereas Bourbon lightens the saltiness of the drink and keeps the recipe closer to its roots. A bit of simple syrup and a pinch of maple syrup draw out the flavor of the barrels of both the bourbon and the sherry. (Fetherson’s tip: maple compliments anything aged in a barrel.)
As you’ll quickly learn, the first step in a julep is one of the most varied and nearly everyone has their own way of doing it; in fact it’s often the key aspect of variation from one bartender’s version to another’s. Once you’ve got your ingredients handy, it’s time to muddle.
Fetherston begins by adding sugar and fresh mint into a julep cup, then with a spoon, smoothing the mint into the glass. Another Fetherston secret? Using the spoon, coat the entire surface along the inside of the glass. This evenly disperses mint flavor throughout the drink. Discard the mint when you’re through, as it becomes bitter the longer it soaks.
Next, add ice to the bottom of the cup. Add sherry. Add bourbon. Add more ice and disperse/mix with a spoon, then add even more ice so you wind up with a sort of sno cone effect–also traditional.
“You’ve got to go to town with the garnish,” he tells me. “It could be the most beautifully made mint julep in the world but if it’s got one measly little sprig out of the top, it’s not right. There’s nothing prettier than a mint julep.”
Enjoy the Julep Under Flor (its name derived from the yeast under which fino and manzanilla sherries age) on Saturday along with free oyster tastings from Rappahannock River Oysters.
Buffalo & Bergen
We’d be lying if we didn’t say that Sergi is one of our favorite bartenders in the District. Whether we’re tasting her boozy sno cones (no longer) at Jack Rose or keeping up with her own boozing in her drink diary, she’s always fun to work with–it’s why we couldn’t wait to get her on the roster for Derby Day and why we can’t wait for you to meet her. (Not to mention the fact that she mixes a mean drink every time. No, every time.)
Her take on the julep this saturday is, naturally, Buffalo and Bergen-inspired. As they make a variety of (all-delicious) syrups for cocktails, floats and egg creams, Sergi turned to their Pineapple Soda, a big hit with customers. Because the syrup is made with fresh pineapple, the final julep is not too sweet; fresh mint boiled with the syrup steeps intensifying the minty flavor and there’s no need for muddling. (See? Different strokes.) We’ve got the recipe for the Smartypants Jones below sans pineapple syrup, but we just so happen to have the Buffalo & Bergen blueberry syrup recipe handy right over here. Get craftin’.
Add 1/2 oz pineapple syrup
Add 1 oz bourbon
Fill cup with crushed ice until it overflows the glass
Pour another 1 oz bourbon
Add 1/2 oz of pineapple syrup over the top
Garnish with beautiful mint sprig covered with powdered sugar
Sergi’s julep secret? Top your drink with booze to make sure you have alcohol throughout your drink. (Oh, and if you’re muddling, be sure not to bruise the mint.) When you’re all done, hopefully you’ll have a product that looks a little something like this:
Because Hogo is mostly a rum bar, Hurst opted for rum over the traditional bourbon and while she’s sticking to mint, you can expect syrup made with grapefruit peel and lemongrass (a nod to Hogo’s tiki roots). The peel is a refreshing take on the citrus used in tiki drinks and ingredients typically found in warm-weather cocktails, which also adds some levity and bitterness to offset the sweetness of the rum.
To begin the syrup, the mixtress adds sugar, water, lemongrass and grapefruit peel to a boiling pot until the sugar dissolves. From there it sits for an hour or two, culminating in a thicker, more flavorful batch of sweetener. Hurst then strains it out and begins her muddling.
Fairly traditional from here on out, she places mint leaves at the bottom of glass and muddles it with syrup, then adds rum. This gets topped with ice, stirred, and augmented with more ice for the standard mound. Hurst’s secret? She pauses to think and thoughtfully tells me not to muddle too much; there’s nothing worse than a bitter julep.
At this point we’ve introduced sherry and the tropics (via pineapple and grapefruit rind) to our juleps. Alex Bookless of The Passenger, however, is taking us on a more herbal route. Using lavender sage syrup, she crafts a floral and vegetal concoction that’s both different and refreshing.
“I love things that are herbatious and felt lavendar really screamed the beginning of spring and hats and Derby Day.” We couldn’t agree more. Check out her recipe (below) for a springy take on the classic julep…
Boil 8 cups of water
Once it boils, add large one handful of both lavender and fresh sage
Add 1/4 cup of coriander
Take it down to a simmer
Add roughly 8 cups of sugar
When sugar dissolves, taste to see if you need or want to add more sugar
Let it chill in the fridge
Crush your ice and keep it handy
Add 1 oz syrup and muddle with mint (leave mint in)
Add 2 oz bourbon
Add more ice
Add ice to be level with cup
Garnish with sage, mint and lavender
Shake powdered sugar over the top
Variation of Messin’ with the Samsquatch
Last but not least, we stopped by Bryan Voltaggio’s Range and spoke with Sam Babcock about his own take on a mint julep, a variation on Range’s own Messin’ with the Samsquatch (which might be the furthest from tradition we’ve tried yet, but dear God is it delicious). In fact, Babcock’s Mint Julep doesn’t use mint at all.
“I wanted to use things that are just coming into season,” he says, “That being fresh herbs. Oregano is a little bit more savory and that helps to balance out the sweetness from the summer squash and zucchini.”
…What?? It’s true, and it works in spades. The mixologist combines 2 oz Riverboat Rye, 1/2 oz Zucca Amaro, a pinch of pregano and his own housemade shrub to create a flavorful, perfectly balanced drink that’s ideal for a warm Saturday afternoon in the sun.
The shrub is in itself a thing of wonder. Summer squash and zucchini get trimmed down, then mixed with pepper and fresh oregano. All of this gets sealed into a tin foil pouch and placed onto a grill, where the contents simmer, bake and char together. From here the pouch gets emptied, its precious cargo put through a juice extractor. Babcock then adds more oregano, pepper and simple syrup and allows it to sit for 24 hours before pulling it and straining.
If you venture out to Range (and we highly recommend you do), be sure to order the Samsquatch topped with their house charceuterie capicola that’s been roasted with sugar and BBQ spices and then dehydrated–and if you can’t wait, of course, you can always find this special cocktail at Derby Day.