The Kentucky Derby has something for everyone, from an incredible history as a sporting event (since 1875!) to its pageantry and elaborate hats. But for us, it comes down to one thing: the mint julep.
And since the Derby is the perfect reason to host a bunch of friends for an afternoon of drinking and merriment, we spoke to executive chef David Danielson of Churchill Downs on how he and his team at Levy make juleps for the 400,000 people who come through their gates (including the exact recipe they use), and how you can easily prepare stellar juleps at home.
It’s a 2-minute race and a day of drinking juleps
Just to give you an idea of the scale of this operation, the Derby takes place on Saturday, May 4, but preparations begin in August of the previous year.
“We’ve got an army of people over here working to get everything geared up,” Danielson told HuffPost. He’s not exaggerating, as it takes over 1,000 workers to whip up the estimated 127,000 mint juleps for Derby Day. The premier race is billed as “the fastest two minutes in sports,” but drinking juleps is an all-day event. The bourbon-filled cocktails are being poured right after the gates open at 8 a.m., and people continue imbibing all the way until last call at 8:10 p.m.
What it takes to prepare over 127,000 juleps
As a refresher: a mint julep is a combination of bourbon, water, fresh mint, sugar and crushed ice (keep reading, because we’ve got great recipes for juleps at the end of the story). Churchill Downs uses 254,000 ounces of bourbon (or over 10,000 750 milliliter bottles), 300 crates of mint (about 4,000 pounds of locally sourced stuff from Louisville, Kentucky’s Dohn Gardens) and 60,000 pounds of ice to make their juleps. You probably won’t need nearly as much for your home setup. Nonetheless, Danielson has tips from his nine years of working the Derby to help you out.
Find the right bourbon
If you think any type of bourbon will suffice for a mint julep, think again. Woodford Reserve is in the Derby’s signature julep, and Danielson cited a few reasons why. “Woodford is a very smooth bourbon,” he told HuffPost. “It has a great flavor profile and delicious caramel notes.” Most importantly, it mixes well with the mint and sugar. Other bourbons can either be too spicy or too mellow for the refreshing spring cocktail.
Make the majority of the cocktail ahead of time
When you’re making drinks in large quantities, you want to be sure you’re able to make consistently tasty drinks at a fast pace. Many recipes (including the one for a classic Woodford mint julep found below) call for tiny spoonfuls of sugar, but it’s not super fun to be scooping sugar behind a bar when you’d rather just be hanging out and drinking.
That’s why the Churchill Downs folks instead replace a scoop of sugar with mint simple syrup. “We make a mint simple syrup with equal parts sugar and water. We bring it to a boil and add mint to it. Then we let it steep and strain it off,” Danielson said. That’s a simple enough recipe that even you should try it for your Derby party. We’ve got you covered with more detail on making simple syrup.
Once that’s done, mix a big quantity of bourbon with your simple syrup and throw it in the fridge. When your friends and family arrive, your job becomes exceedingly simple. “Take your ice out, pour [this boozy mixture] over top, garnish it, and you’re literally off to the races, my friend,” Danielson said.
Crushed ice, accept no substitutes
“Historically, juleps were a sign of prosperity,” Danielson noted. “Ice was a commodity, and so when you wanted to entertain or show people you were in society, you showed people you had ice. If you had crushed ice piled high in a glass, you were really doing well.”
Show all your friends you’re also doing great by using crushed ice. Not only does it look fantastic should you want to Instagram your julep, but it gives you a chance to take out all your frustrations in the making of this drink. If you can’t find crushed ice at the liquor store, you can create it by buying a regular bag of ice and smashing it up with a hammer. Or just using a strong blender.
Treat the mint right
You might be tempted to buy fresh mint from the grocery store and store it in your fridge’s crisper drawer, but Danielson recommends treating mint with more respect. “Put an inch or so of cold water at the bottom of a cup,” he said. “Make sure the stems are sitting in the water.” When you’re ready to serve the cocktail, use an entire sprig of mint, which should have about six to seven leaves on it.
A highball glass is more than suitable
Yes, there sure are silver julep cups you can purchase online and elsewhere, but Danielson said not to sweat it if you don’t have time to buy them. “A skinny, tall, 8-ounce [highball glass] is a great glass for a julep,” he said.
We’ve got two recipes you can check out. The first is the one served at Churchill Downs, and the second is Woodford Reserve’s original recipe. Cheers!
Danielson’s Mint Julep Recipe (served at Churchill Downs)
2 ounces Woodford Reserve
1 ounce mint simple syrup
Sprig of fresh mint
Pour Woodford Reserve and simple syrup over crushed ice.
Stir with spoon.
Garnish with a fresh sprig of mint.
Woodford Reserve Mint Julep
2 ounces Woodford Reserve
1 ounce water
4 sprigs of fresh mint
1 teaspoon sugar
In a copper julep cup, rub two pieces of fresh mint around the cup to express the oils.
Add Woodford Reserve, then the water and sugar and stir with a bar spoon.
Add crushed ice to the top, then garnish with four sprigs of mint.