Illustration by Julie Leidner.

Derby Drinks

John Steinbeck famously ruminated, “The Kentucky Derby, whatever it is – a race, an emotion, a turbulence, an explosion – is one of the most beautiful and violent and satisfying things I have ever experienced.” No matter what it is, one thing is for certain: Until that trophy cup is presented to the victors, we shall indulge the proclivity to fill our own cups. Add some panache to your Derby season with this cavalcade of festive cocktails – some classic, some new. A few offer twists on the old standby, the mint julep. All, save one, flaunt that eternal belle of the ball, Kentucky whiskey.

Whiskey Smash

Jerry Thomas, the father of the American bar, offered the whiskey smash, a lazier take on the julep, in 1862. Modern mixologist Dale DeGroff refined it into this sweet, sour, herbal, bitter, and decidedly chic update.

  • 2 ounces whiskey or bourbon
  • ¾ ounce simple syrup
  • 1 ounce Cointreau (optional)
  • 6 mint leaves
  • 3 lemon wedges

Muddle the lemon wedges, mint, and simple syrup. Then add the whiskey and Cointreau (if you opt for such flourish). Shake with ice and strain into a rocks glass filled with crushed ice. Garnish with a mint sprig.


Louisville Cathouse

Ms. Franky Marshall, a veteran New York City ‘tender,” assembled this dash of chocolate and dash of spice – an unexpected alchemy that evokes leather and tobacco while tipping its hat to dainty julep traditions – after a visit to Derby City.

  • 2 ounces ancho-chili-infused bourbon
  • ½ ounce Bols creme de cacao white
  • ¼ ounce Fernet Branca

Build in julep cup. Add crushed or pebble ice. Stir until cup is frosted. Add more ice. Garnish with a generous mint sprig bouquet and straw.


The Seelbach Cocktail

This is the pre-Prohibition original, born in 1917 at the eponymous Louisville hotel. The recipe was rediscovered in 1995 and coaxed into the public eye by some devoted cocktail historians a few years later, to our great benefit.

  • 1 ounce bourbon
  • ½ ounce Cointreau
  • 7 dashes Angostura bitters
  • 7 dashes Peychaud’s bitters
  • 5 ounces champagne

Pour bourbon, Cointreau, and bitters into champagne flute and stir. Add champagne. Stir again and garnish with orange twist.


The Seelbach Fizz

Created by Michael R. Anderson of The Seelbach Hilton, this inspired twist on the classic took the top prize at the 2012 Louisville Cocktail Competition held at Rye.

  • 2 ounces Old Forester Signature
  • 1 ounce Cointreau
  • ½ ounce creme de cacao
  • 1 ounce orange juice
  • ¾ ounce egg white
  • 1 dash heavy cream
  • 7 dashes Angostura bitters
  • 7 dashes Peychaud’s bitters
  • 1 pinch ground cinnamon
  • 1 pinch cocoa powder

Dry shake. Hard shake. Pour into a large highball glass or small beer glass. Top with champagne. Garnish with orange wedge and fresh grated nutmeg.


Preakness Cocktail

Wrong Triple Crown race, but this paean to the third Saturday in May – a simple, smooth showcase of Kentucky’s choice spirit – has been shamefully overlooked up in Baltimore in favor of the fruit and sugar laden “official” 20th century vodka tipple, the black-eyed Susan. Finders keepers.

  • 1½ ounces rye or bourbon
  • ¾ ounce sweet vermouth
  • ½ teaspoon Benedictine herbal liqueur
  • 1 dash bitters
  • 1 twist lemon peel

Stir all ingredients (except lemon peel) with ice and strain into a cocktail glass. Add the twist of lemon peel and serve.


Pimm’s Cup

Originally a British accouterment to a day of tennis, this divine refreshment has endless fruit-filled permutations, but the Southern-fied, no frills rendition from New Orleans’ historic Napoleon House Bar and Cafe can be made by the pitcher, or sloppily by the glass. This is a festive alternative for those (blasphemous) folks who can’t abide by whiskey, because in Derby season we should all behave charitably.

  • 1¼ ounces Pimm’s No. 1
  • 3 ounces lemonade
  • 7UP

Fill a tall 12-ounce glass with ice and add Pimm’s No. 1 and lemonade. Then top off with 7UP. Garnish with cucumber.


Bourbon Milk Punch

How to justify bourbon for breakfast.

  • 4 cups whole milk
  • 1 cup Kentucky bourbon
  • ¼ cup vanilla extract
  • ¼ cup simple syrup
  • 1 pint vanilla ice cream
  • Ground nutmeg or cinnamon, if desired

Combine and sprinkle with cinnamon or freshly ground nutmeg.


10-Day Mint Julep

Pre-Derby festivities last for two weeks or more, so why shouldn’t your julep preparation? Sue Parenio of The Johnson Family Cookbook gingerly tends her mint and whiskey marinade.

  • ½ cup sugar
  • Mint leaves
  • ¼ cup brandy
  • 1 fifth bourbon

Take a large glass jar and pack sugar into the bottom. Fill full with mint leaves. Add brandy. Fill with 1 fifth bourbon (needn’t be a good one). Do not stir. Tightly cap jar and place in refrigerator. Every 24 hours for 10 days, turn the jar over 180 degrees. In other words, for 10 days, it is alternated standing on its base and head. No shaking or stirring. After 10 days, discard the mint and strain. Two ounces of this elixir over crushed ice, with a fresh sprig of mint, will change your life.

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