Over the years, the Kentucky Derby has only gotten more chic—from the lavish hats worn in honor of the race, to the epic parties all weekend long. And one thing that's always been in vogue at Derby season is a perfectly crafted, icy mint julep. The horse race only lasts a minute, but Derby-inspired juleps generally stay on bar menus around the country well into the summer, if not longer.
“Juleps are among the oldest cocktails in existence, and a prime example of the historically blurry line between alcohol and medicine,” explains Tom Macy, head bartender and partner at the famed Clover Club in Brooklyn, New York, where an annual Derby party makes the list of the city's must-attend events every spring.
“Originally, a julep referred to a remedy of some kind that had been sweetened to make it more palatable,” he says. “As the julep became a more popular ‘prescription,’ the definition evolved to mean a style of mixed drink.”
A few historians claim that the drink's origins date as far back as the 1700s, but its exact birthday remains unknown. “By the early 19th century, juleps—now commonly served with the addition of mint—had become exclusively recreational beverages, particularly in the South,” adds Macy. But hey, if doctors used to prescribe these things, we're assuming we can indulge in these recreational beverages guilt-free.
As the pounding hooves of the horses draw nigh, it’s time to get our hands around some ice-cold juleps, even if we're nowhere near horse country. These bars around the U.S. serve up some of the most fun and playful twists on the classic.
The Georgia Julep at Clover Club in Brooklyn, NY
“Peach is the perfect third wheel to the classic mint julep flavors of bourbon and mint,” says Tom Macy, head bartender/partner at Clover Club, which arguably throws one of the best, invite-only Derby parties on the day of the race. You can stop in any time and sip this classic variation with Wild Turkey 101, peach liqueur, simple syrup and lightly muddled fresh mint leaves. It’s served with proper crushed ice in the prettiest Julep mugs to ever grace Brooklyn.
Bedroom Eyes at Wildhawk in San Francisco
“We wanted to create a spirit-forward, yet refreshing play on the concept of the julep,” says Wildhawk partner Jacques Bezuidenhout. “We use Absolut Elyx Rooibos, which has a nutty and full-bodied nature. Instead of whiskey, we use Batavia Arrack, a spirit known as the ‘rum of Indonesia,’ with aromas of citrus and chocolate.” He also adds Riesling and lemon juice to brighten the cocktail, making it an intense but refreshing drink, perfect for summer nights.
The Count Fleet at The 404 Kitchen, Nashville
The 404 Kitchen opened in Nashville’s Gulch neighborhood in 2014. The Southern menu by chef Matt Bolus—from skillet cornbread to seasonal burrata—quickly caught the eye of the James Beard Foundation, which named the restaurant a semi-finalist that year for Best New Restaurant. Their julep bucks tradition, arriving in a tall Collins glass over ice. It comes with two full ounces of Maker’s Mark bourbon, one lemon wedge and four blackberries muddled with sugar and Angostura bitters. That’s all shaken hard with fresh cilantro and garnished with a pretty tuft of the herb.
The Bluegrass Julep at Saxon & Parole in New York City
Saxon and Parole's drink looks exactly like a classic julep, except the rosebud and fresh rosemary in place of the mint will give you a visual hint that you’re in for something unusual. There’s definitely bourbon (Larceny, to be exact) but underlying that is a floral, citrusy flavor from a combination of Fino sherry, lemon juice and a house-made Provence Rose Cordial. The bartenders make it from wine and actual roses.
The Alpine Derby at Barrel Proof in New Orleans
In a bar famed for its nearly 200 bottles of whiskey and bourbon, displayed in a room where thick, dark wood panel walls and ceilings create an Old South sense of timelessness, you’d bank on a great julep. And you’d be right. Yet Barrel Proof's rendition includes the strange bedfellows of bonded bourbon, herbaceous Dolin Genepy des Alpes liqueur and the rich chocolate notes of Tempus Fugit creme de cacao. With a dusting of powdered sugar on the mint, it’s basically a fourth course in a silver cup.
Thai Julep at Redbird in Los Angeles
Built inside what was once the rectory of a cathedral, Redbird offers modern American cuisine, a bright and sunny vibe, and a cocktail menu focusing on bespoke renditions on the classics. Beverage director Tobin Shea looked to the humid climes of Southeast Asia when making his Thai Julep. It features tequila and Martinique rum instead of bourbon, alongside Thai basil, pineapple shrub, lemongrass, lime and Thai chili. Thanks to its beautiful bouquet of fresh basil and pineapple, you’ll smell this drink coming before it even hits the bar top.
The Sparkling Julep at Julep in Houston
Alba Huerta opened her bar Julep a few years ago in the Heights neighborhood of Houston. Her menus often feature quirky Southern ingredients (she once made a cocktail out of Lowcountry rice), and they always involve lots of attention to detail and fine craftsmanship. “With the weather warming up, our Sparkling Julep has become a cult favorite with my guests,” Huerta says. The drink features Frv100 Sparkling Gamay wine and nearly an ounce of Cognac. You’ll also find the classic culprits of mint, powdered sugar and simple syrup, yet the pop of the sparkling wine adds something undeniably festive.
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