Friday, May 6, 2011

Dressing for Derby Day

The 137th Run for the Roses is only a day away and, as a new resident of the Bluegrass, I feel obligated to help you prepare properly.

There are
two items you must wear as an authentic Derby audience member: a hat on your head and a mint julep in your hand.

The hat I’ll leave up to you. It can range from ridiculous to stunning. Personally, I prefer elegant. Whatever your choice, it’s supposed to bring luck.

As for the mint julep, I encourage you to rely on tradition. Sure, the Internet will give you gobs of recipes. But I’m about to share with you 19th-century statesman Henry Clay’s version—the one he introduced to D.C. society and the nation—straight from his estate in Lexington, Kentucky.

Clay was a bourbon connoisseur. He doesn’t specify a particular brand in his julep instructions, of course, but you can bet he didn’t cut corners.

“The mint leaves, fresh and tender, should be pressed against a coin-silver goblet with the back of a silver spoon. Only bruise the leaves gently and then remove them from the goblet. Half fill with cracked ice. Mellow bourbon, aged in oaken barrels, is poured from the jigger and allowed to slide slowly through the cracked ice.

In another receptacle, granulated sugar is slowly mixed into chilled limestone water to make a silvery mixture as smooth as some rare Egyptian oil, then poured on top of the ice. While beads of moisture gather on the burnished exterior of the silver goblet, garnish the brim of the goblet with the choicest sprigs of mint.”

Sip slowly.

Other recipes exist for this traditional drink and any claim to the RIGHT recipe stirred a great deal of controversy back in Clay’s day. In 1936, humorist Irvin S. Cobb wrote the following about mint juleps:

“…well, down our way we’ve always had a theory that the Civil War was not brought on by Secession or Slavery or the State’s Rights issue. These matters contributed to the quarrel, but there is a deeper reason. It was brought on by some Yankee coming down south and putting nutmeg in a julep. So our folks just up and left the Union flat.”
—From Beyond the Fence: A Culinary View of Historic Lexington

For stats regarding the mint juleps served at Churchill Downs, visit Kentucky Derby. If you’re a bourbon-drinking novice, visit the Kentucky Bourbon Trail and Kentucky Barrels Web sites for additional information on this very American Spirit.

Happy Derby viewing. And don’t forget…

Sip slowly.

[Images of hats from a previous Derby: James Brown photographed by AP’s David J. Phillip, and an unidentified pic. Goblet crafted for Gabriel Jones by Lawrence Miller, based on an Asa Blanchard design; photo from Kempt. Unidentified Derby horses (pic by Kinetic); Lookin At Lucky from 2010 Derby (pic taken by Dan Dry).]

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