Every spring, as the first Saturday in May approaches, my thoughts turn to the ponies. To the great lady of American horseracing, the Kentucky Derby. I can almost hear the roar of the stands, and smell the freshly-raked turf. I can see the well-heeled crowd in Millionaire's Row, making bets on which horse will wear the roses in the winner's circle this year.
While I know this has a lot to do with the (many) "Black Stallion" books I read as a child, I think it's really about the hats. Wide-brimmed, swooping curves, all those colors. The hatbands. The architecture. The bows! Oh, those feathers!
Sadly, I was born a continent away from this spectacle of Southern charm, so I have to resign myself with watching the race on television, and wearing the floppy sunhat I take to the beach. But this year, there is one thing I can do to capture an authentic Derby experience.
Enjoy a Mint Julep.
While I do make my home below the Mason-Dixon Line, I believe living in California qualifies me as a Yankee. So I had to research the correct way to make one. Recipes for Mint Juleps stretch back deep into American history, but the first record of one appears just after 1800. Apparently, there are as many formulas for Mint Juleps, as there are beloved grandmothers in Kentucky. (For a truly entertaining recipe, search the internet for "Mint Julep ritual Lt. Gen. Simon Bolivar Buckner Jr." Go ahead, I'll wait!) After exploring my options, several main tenants became clear. In order to make a true Mint Julep (and not a candy-sweet, florescent green, alcoholic milkshake that might be served at a theme park), there are four important ingredients:
Fine sugar, fresh mint leaves, smooth Kentucky bourbon, and finely-crushed ice.
The main variations seem to be how much sugar to add (depending on the desired level of sweetness), and how to garnish with mint (layered throughout the crushed ice, a sprig on top, one leaf rubbed around the rim of the cup). Another element many agree on is that the proper way to serve a Mint Julep is in a footed silver cup. Because I do not have a great-uncle to pass down a heavy antique heirloom, I contented myself with a (reasonably priced) stainless steel version.
I began with a dash of water in the bottom of the cup, and two dashes of confectioner's sugar. I added several fresh mint leaves, and muddled them, until the sugar melted into the water and the leaves released their crisp scent. Then I packed the cup with finely crushed ice (as dry as possible), and added a generous pour of bourbon on top. Finally I stirred all the ingredients together, and swirled and swirled the mixture, until the metal sides of the cup were coated in white frost.
Then it was time for drinking. I put on my floppy sunhat, and held the metal cup (as instructed) by the footed rim at the bottom. I raised a toast to the ponies, and sipped.
The bite of the bourbon was softened by the touch of sweetness from the sugar, while the freshness of the mint lifted up the other flavors. The crushed ice was cold, but not freezing, and made the drink a delicious adult slushy. By not overdoing the sugar, I could still enjoy the tang of bourbon, whereas the mint and ice transformed the dark liquor into a lighter refreshment. Although the frosty side of the metal cup gave me flashbacks to that Christmas movie where the kid gets his tongue stuck to the light pole, I enjoyed the chill of the cup in my hand and against my lips.
Mint Juleps are going to find a frequent place on my summertime beverage rotation. For a large group, I can see the expediency of mint simple syrup, rather than the slow muddling of each cup (equal parts water and sugar, as well as mint leaves, simmered over low heat until the sugar dissolves). I also want to try adding a drop of lemon juice to brighten the flavors, as another recipe suggested. While the metal cup is fun, Mint Juleps are often served in Collins or highball glasses (I hear at the race itself, the official Derby drink is served in commemorative glass tumblers with straws).
While the actual race lasts barely two minutes, I sipped my Mint Julep all afternoon, and looked forward to the next two races in the Triple Crown, as well as the long summer ahead.
Sara Joyce Robinson is a native of Southern California, where she was raised, educated, and still lives. She received her MFA in Fiction from the University of California, Irvine, and you can see what she's up to at SaraJoyceRobinson.com.