The first Saturday in May is, for many of us, the only day we make an effort to watch horse racing. The “most exciting two minutes in sports” is how the Kentucky Derby is described, and this year’s event, the 148th, will be no exception. Needless to say, an event with a history as long as this has engendered a number of traditions. For instance, ladies wear extravagant hats – the bigger and (apparently) gaudier the better. My wife has a couple of such chapeaux to choose from, even though we’ll be watching the proceedings from our porch and not in the grandstands at Churchill Downs.
The men wear seersucker sport coats and bow ties in the brightest shades imaginable, despite track conditions that can often be hot and humid. And both sexes hold a certain frosty beverage in their hands – a mint julep. The history of the julep goes back much further than the Derby; in fact, the origin of the word goes back to ancient times, deriving from the Arabic word “julab” which described a drink consisting of sweetened water and rose petals. As the beverage spread to folks in the Mediterranean, the native mint was substituted for roses. At some point consumers began adding in cognac.
By the time the concoction had spread to New World, rum (the most prevalent spirit in the Americas) had taken over from cognac, and like many early alcoholic libations the result was considered medicinal. First mentioned in print in 1803, British writer John Davis described a julep as “a dram of spiritous liquor within which is steeped a quantity of mint” and taken in the morning as a tonic by many Virginians.
Appropriately the julep was introduced to Washington society by Kentucky Senator Henry Clay in 1850. Clay frequented a local bar, the Round Robin at the Willard Hotel, and instructed the bartender there on the drink’s preparation.
The modern mint julep is both deceptively simple as well as potent – after all, the only liquid involved is bourbon, and many aficionados prefer over-proof bourbon to counteract the inherent sweetness.
CLASSIC MINT JULEP
• 2.5 oz. overproof bourbon (this means over 80 proof)
•.5 oz. simple syrup
• 6 mint leaves
• mint sprig (for garnish)
• powdered sugar (optional)
Preparation: Add mint leaves and simple syrup to a chilled Julep cup. Muddle gently to release the oils, but be careful not to bruise the mint. Pack the glass with crushed ice and pour bourbon over ice. Stir to mix the ingredients, and fill the glass with more crushed ice. Garnish with a mint sprig and dusting of powdered sugar, if desired. The referenced julep cup is, preferably, made of sterling silver. If you don’t happen to have a inherited set (or sold yours when silver prices topped $160 an ounce, as they did earlier this month) a regular highball glass will suffice. Speaking of julep cups, if you’re serious about upping your game with barware, the Woodford Reserve folks, the official bourbon of the Derby, are once again offering $1,000 julep cups, made of silver and adorned with rubies, the sale of which benefits Old Friends Farm – a home for many retired race horses, including multiple Derby winners. Of course, if you really want to impress you can up the donation to $2,500 and receive a gold version of the same cup. The distiller cautions that there are only 18 gold cups available, so act fast.
Considering the drink of the day is basically sweetened straight bourbon, it’s a good idea to have food on hand. And nothing could be more appropriate than this delicious sandwich.
KENTUCKY HOT BROWN
• 1-1/2 Tbsp. all-purpose flour
• 1-1/2 Tbsp. salted butter
• 1/4 cup Pecorino Romano cheese, plus extra for garnish
• 14 oz. sliced roasted turkey breast (sliced thick)
• 2 Roma tomatoes, sliced in half
• 4 slices of bacon
• 4 slices of Texas toast (crusts trimmed)
• Pinch of ground nutmeg
• Salt and pepper
1. In a two-quart saucepan, melt butter and slowly whisk in flour until combined to form a thick paste or roux. Continue to cook roux for 2 minutes over medium-low heat, stirring frequently. Whisk heavy cream into the roux and cook over medium heat until the cream begins to simmer, about 2-3 minutes. Remove sauce from heat and slowly whisk in Pecorino Romano cheese until the Mornay sauce is smooth. Add nutmeg, salt and pepper to taste.
2. For each Hot Brown, place one slice of toast in an oven-safe dish and cover with 7 oz. turkey. Take the two halves of Roma tomato and two toast points and set them alongside the base of turkey and toast. Pour half of the sauce over the dish, completely covering it. Sprinkle with additional cheese. Place entire dish under a broiler until cheese begins to brown and bubble. Remove and cross two pieces of crispy bacon on top. Sprinkle with paprika and parsley and serve immediately.
This decadent sandwich was invented at The Brown Hotel in downtown Louisville in the 1920s. My wife and I visited the historic hotel a couple of years ago and this is the official recipe given to guests. Yes, we had to try the dish, despite having to order it “to go” and eat in the lobby due to COVID restrictions closing the restaurant. The things I do in the name of research …
Betting on the contenders in the Derby is, of course, a prime attraction of the race. (Note to IRS: I never choose a winner.) There is projected to be a wide-open 20 horse field this year. I’ll root for an unlikely winner – thinking how cool it would be if, say, a 90-1 long shot like Summer Is Tomorrow surprised everyone and wound up with the traditional blanket of roses. Think of the payout … I could get one of those prized julep cups and have a few bucks left!