The 137th running of the Kentucky Derby, otherwise known as the greatest two minutes in sports, will take place at the famous Churchill Downs tomorrow.
With that in mind, we have enlisted the service of Matt Jones, a Maker's Mark Distillery Diplomat, to talk to us about the history of bourbon and its ties to the world's most well-known thoroughbred horse race and its signature cocktail, the Mint Julep.
Take it away Matt.
Of thoroughbreds and bourbon
When whisky merchants began selling their drams up and down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers back in the early 1800s, they did so by strapping their barrels of whisky upon floating barges.
They staked barrels and barrels of whisky upon these floating log platforms, and using a long wooden pole, they pushed themselves downstream. That trip down the Mississippi to thirsty ports like New Orleans could take up to 5-6 months to accomplish.
In that time the hot sun would beat down on the barrels. Barrels which thrifty distillers had charred to remove the remains of the barrels’ previous contents, such as vinegar and salt-fish.
The barrels were made of White American Oak, which is quite porous and pliable when heated, the reason they were the natural choice to mold into cargo barrels in the first place. The heat opened up the pores of the wood, making them sponge-like, so they absorbed the clear whisky. During the cold nights the pores contracted, forcing the whisky back into the cavern of the barrel.
When they reached New Orleans and tapped these barrels, something was different.
The nectar inside was different. It was sweet like vanilla, amber like a sunset, and mellow like a cool breeze.
Thirsty patrons began requesting that 'red whisky' by its county of origin, the county name that was stamped on those barrels. Bourbon County.
When those merchants had sold their bourbon, they sold the barges too, as it would have been futile to fight the current for thousands of kilometers upstream. They needed to find a way back home that wasn’t so laborious.
So they bought French thoroughbred horses from the French Quarter in New Orleans, and they rode them home back home following the Natches Trace. Thus began Kentucky’s love affair with thoroughbred horse racing. And bourbon!
The Mint Julep
The Julep itself is an interchangeable term with Sling, Skin, and Toddy, to name a few. This was the basic cup of coffee circa the early 1700s, as the magic of caffeine had not yet been imported to the West.
Folks woke up in the morning to a Sling (from the Germanic shlingin, meaning to throw it back much like a shooter today). It stimulated the mind, body, and spirit! The mixture was simple: spirit, sugar, and water. Heat it up; you have an English Hot Toddy.
The Irish immigrants called it a Skin, and the South adopted the term Julep, which is a French word derived from an Arabic/Persian word, golab, which essentially means sweet concoction, often associated with rosewater.
It is not clear when mint was added to the Julep concoction, although the drink itself was introduced to Washington, D.C., by Kentucky Senator Henry Clay in the early 1800s.
The first time it appears in print is 1803, just 3 years prior to the 'cocktail' appearing in print for the first time. Folklore presides that mint was planted outside of Churchill Downs so that Mint Juleps would be available at the first Kentucky Derby in 1875!
The Perfect Mint Julep
There are many ways to prepare this refreshing libation. On demand or by the pitcher, the biggest rule to remember is: it is NOT a Mojito! The mint is pressed, not muddled into a stringy mess. Also the choice of bourbon is important. The wonderfully diverse and smooth profile of Maker’s Mark Handmade Bourbon makes the perfect Mint Julep.
[Editor's note: I love Matt to death, but there's no need for your Mojito to contain mint that's been muddled into a stringy mess. Pressing or slapping your mint around a bit is preferable to mashing it until it's unrecognizable. More on this in a future post. Now, back to our featured speaker.]
Place 6-8 cleaned and dried fresh mint leaves into the bottom of your drinking vessel. Add 1/2 oz simple syrup (2 parts sugar: 1 part water) and 1/4 oz Maker’s Mark.
Gently PRESS the leaves with syrup and bourbon in the bottom of the glass until the membranes of the leaves are saturated. Let stand for 10 minutes.
While this mixture is infusing, make your crushed ice. Fill a clean bag with cracked ice, and, using a mallet or substitute, get out some pent up stress!
Fill your vessel with crushed ice, add bourbon to taste, and garnish with a mint blossom. Dust with powdered sugar, and serve!
By The Pitcher
Pluck 2 bushels/pints of mint: about 40-50 leaves but no stems; they're bitter. Also pluck the blossom tops off each stem, and leave approximately 5 leaves from the top. These will be your garnishes, set them aside. Wash the rest of the leaves and pat dry.
Prepare some simple syrup by combining 1 cup sugar to 1/2 cup water (2:1) in a saucepan and heat over medium heat until it turns crystal clear. Do not let it boil, which causes the sugar to caramelize and ruins the whole flavour profile.
Pour the simple syrup over the mint leaves in a bowl and let them steep like tea for 20 minutes (longer can't hurt). Using a fine strainer, remove the mint from the syrup.
Taste test to see you have enough balance of mint to sweet. Should give you that 'Halls cough-drop' effect when you taste – sweet but very cleansing mint finish. (I have also tried this by steeping mint tea bags in simple syrup, it helps concentrate the effect!)
Add 3 cups of Maker’s Mark (3.17 cups = 750ml) and let infuse in fridge over night. Pour over crushed ice, garnish and serve!
Y'all come back now, ya hear!
Matt Jones is a Maker's Mark Distillery Diplomat, a fantastic storyteller and all-around nice guy. We met him at a bourbon tasting not long ago and had to share some of his tales with you. And for the record: no. I wasn't given any free bourbon to let him sing the praises of Maker's Mark bourbon in this blog post. Unfortunately.
[Editor's note: Tomorrow's post will feature the Samuels family recipe for Mint Juleps, from none other than the big kahuna himself, eighth generation distiller and COO Rob Samuels. The Samuels family has been handcrafting Maker's Mark from the very beginning.]
Will you be watching the Kentucky Derby tomorrow?