The Kentucky Derby is a horse race that’s held every year in Louisville, Kentucky. There’s a two-week-long festival that ends with the Derby on the first Saturday of May. People come from all over the world to watch what’s referred to as “The most exciting two minutes in sports”. It’s been held every year since 1875. This is impressive because it was even held throughout the Great Depression and both World Wars, during which professional sports and even the Olympics were canceled. As with any festival with a long-standing tradition, the Kentucky Derby festival is a leisure activity for most people, which means there are some delicious cocktails being served up!
The mint Julep (mint, ice, bourbon and sugar) is often associated with the Derby, and for good reason. It has been the official drink at Churchill Downs for nearly a century. It was first served at the Derby during the 1930’s. Now, it’s estimated that almost 120,000 mint Juleps are served in the two days during the Kentucky Derby and Oaks weekend. It’s a classic, refreshing, Southern drink that brings to mind verandas and rocking chairs, which makes it perfect for the Kentucky Derby.
But, the mint Julep isn’t the only cocktail that’s perfect for sipping while spectating or taking part in the festivities. (I will start with it and add several variations, just for tradition’s sake, though!) So, what makes a good Kentucky Derby drink? Because fans will be outdoors in the sun, it needs to be something that’s crisp, refreshing and hydrating. If it provides a new twist on an old classic, like the mint Julep, or embodies life in Kentucky, that’s even better. With those stipulations in mind, here’s a list of the best Kentucky Derby Drinks.
Old Forester Mint Julep
This is one of the traditional mint Juleps served at the Kentucky Derby. It’s big on flavor, refreshing, and minty. One thing that you need to remember when making a Julep is to spank the mint in order to release the essential oils in it.
- 3 oz Old Forester Mint Julep
- 75 oz Simple Syrup
- 8-10 Mint Leaves
- 3 Mint Sprigs (garnish)
- In a mint Julep cup, pack crushed ice
- Combine bourbon, syrup and mint leaves in a mixing glass
- Bruise the mint leaves lightly with a muddler
- Strain into mint Julep glass
- Garnish with mint sprigs
- Place straw near mint sprigs and serve
Woodford Reserve Classic Mint Julep
Another recipe that’s often seen at Churchill Downs, this classic cocktail is fantastic on a hot, sunny day. It’s mad a little differently than the Old Forester version, but the difference in preparation doesn’t make it lack any of the classic, minty flavor.
- 2 oz Woodford Reserve
- 1/2 oz Simple Syrup
- 3 Fresh Mint Leaves
- Crushed Ice
- Slap the mint leaves to bring the essential oils out, and then rub them inside the glass
- Add syrup, bourbon and ice
- Garnish with more crushed ice and some mint leaves
Thyme Julep by Frank Liotti
This Julep incorporates Basil Hayden’s rye bourbon into the recipe, which changes up the base flavor a bit. The substitution of thyme for the mint brings out the herbal flavors in the rye bourbon that the mint wouldn’t do justice.
- 2 oz Basil Hayden’s rye whiskey
- 1 barspoon simple syrup
- 1 dash Angostura bitters
- 6 fresh thyme sprigs (one for garnish)
- In a rocks glass, muddle thyme sprigs
- In a mixing glass, combine the remaining ingredients with ice
- Stir until cold
- Strain into rocks glass filled with ice
- Garnish with a sprig of toasted thyme
This citrusy drink would be a great way to hydrate without the alcohol. But the addition of vodka makes it a pleasant, leisurely way to cool down on a hot day.
- 1 1/2 oz Ketel One Vodka
- 1/2 oz fresh lime juice
- 3/4 oz fresh pink grapefruit juice
- 1/3 oz pomegranate syrup
- 8 mint leaves
- 1/3 oz honey syrup
- In a mixing glass, add the first five ingredients
- Add in the honey syrup and stir
- Add ice and shake until cold
- Strain into Julep glass filled with crushed ice
- Garnish with mint leaves and a twist of grapefruit
The Grey Goose Oaks Lily has been the official drink of the Kentucky Oaks since 2006. This recipe is made for larger quantities, perfect for a crowd. It’s like a gourmet cranberry vodka. It’s the perfect alternative for people who don’t like bourbon because it uses vodka instead, and manages to be just as refreshing on a hot day. It’ll be sure to please the whole crowd at your Derby party!
- 9 oz Grey Goose Vodka
- 4 oz fresh lemon juice
- 4 oz simple syrup
- 24 oz cranberry juice
- 8 oz orange liqueur
- Add all ingredients to a pitcher
- To serve: fill each glass half full with ice, pour punch over the ice, garnish with fresh blackberry and slice of lemon.
Kentucky Gambler Punch
This is a crisp, sweet and refreshing drink that packs a punch. (Pun intended!) If you’re a fan of sweet tea, this is a great way to kick it up a notch and serve everyone at your Derby party.
- 1 bottle Woodford Reserve
- 2 liters fresh brewed tea
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 15 lemons
- 15 sprigs of mint
- 1 large punch bowl
- Peel lemons and place peels into bowl with sugar
- Pick the leaves off of the mint sprigs and place the mint leaves in the bowl, as well
- Brew tea directly into the bowl
- Mix well
- Juice lemons and add juice to bowl
- Cool the mixture
- Add ice and bourbon
- Garnish with mint
It doesn’t matter whether you actually go to the Kentucky Derby, or host a Derby party of your own, these drinks are sure to please a crowd. Remember, just because the race is finished in two minutes doesn’t mean you have to chug these drinks that fast. (Some of them are pretty high on the alcohol content, and that’s probably a bad idea anyway!)