Having grown up in Louisville, Kentucky, the Derby is more than just a horse race. It’s a reason to celebrate. When I was a kid, we had the Friday before Derby off from school. The first grade at my school made stick horses and paper mache jockey hats. The entire school, K – 9, lined up to watch them gallop down the long, tree-lined school driveway. We cheered wildly as they crossed the finish line, just like our parents did year-after-year at Derby parties.
The first time I went to the Boat Race, one of the big Derby Festival events, I was in high school. A group of us piled into my two-tone blue Caprice Classic and drove downtown to the riverfront. We watched the race from Cox’s park, a place you didn’t go after dark. As we cheered on the Belle of Louisville, our hometown boat, the giant paddle wheels thrashed in the murky brown water of the Ohio River (think mutant catfish legends). Try as it might, the Belle didn’t win. But it didn’t stop everyone from partying.
When I was eighteen, I experienced the infield at Churchill Downs for the first time. Let’s just say it isn’t pretty dresses, hats and gentlemen holding doors. I drank my first mint julep, watched a bunch of practically naked people wrestle in a pit of mud (it was raining) and squeezed through the drunken throngs to catch a tiny glimpse of the race through a chain link fence.
In honor of my hometown (my husband’s, too) we have a Derby party every year. We eat fried chicken, cheese grits, and Derby Pie, all with cold mint juleps in hand. It’s less redneck than my teenage memories and one of the few ways that we try to celebrate our heritage (booze and race horses in the same day). This year we will be in Arizona and won’t be having our party. It won’t be the same, but as I soak in the Arizona sun and admire the saguaros, I’m thinking I need a mint julep in hand.
Mint Julep Recipe
- Simple Syrup (see directions below)
- Good Kentucky Bourbon (Weller, Maker’s, Woodford all work)
- Crushed Ice
- To make simple syrup heat 2 cups of water, bring to a boil, and add one cup sugar. I like Wholesome Sweeteners Organic Sugar because the molasses and minerals haven’t been removed and the flavor is richer. Stir until sugar is dissolved. Remove from heat and cool.
- Once the simple syrup is cooled, add two tablespoons and several mint leaves to your julep cup. Muddle well.
- Add 2 ounces of bourbon.
- Add a splash of water.
- Add crushed ice.
- Garnish with a sprig of mint.