Derby week: ‘One Mint Julep’

Today’s post has a soundtrack: Ray Charles’ cover of the Clovers’ “One Mint Julep.” Play the embedded video, then scroll down and keep reading.

Saturday is the Kentucky Derby, and at Churchill Downs in Louisville and Derby parties everywhere, people will try a mint julep because that’s what you’re supposed to drink on Derby Day.

Some people, out of kindness or maybe because they’re drunk, will say to love it, but others won’t, and they’ll quietly set down their glasses and ignore them the rest of the afternoon.

I was born in Kentucky, and, living in Lexington, I always enjoyed the traditions surrounding the Derby, but I tend to agree with an old newspaper man I knew who believed a mint julep is a terrible waste of good bourbon.

Juleps are a Southern thing, a concoction of bourbon, water, spearmint leaves and sugar. No one’s sure who invented it or when, but a Londoner who worked as a tutor on a Southern plantation wrote a book in 1803 and described the drink as “a dram of spirituous liquor that has mint steeped in it, taken by Virginians of a morning.”

I suspect people drank mint juleps at the first Kentucky Derby in 1875, but juleps didn’t really become a Derby tradition until Churchill Downs began selling souvenir mint julep glasses in 1938.

On paper, a mint julep sounds like it would work. You have bourbon, sugar, water and spearmint — not a bad ingredient in the bunch.

Mint juleps look good, too, when they’re done right. You’re supposed to serve mint juleps in silver cups filled with crushed ice; you stir the drink quickly to frost the cup and garnish with a mint sprig.

It really is a handsome drink.

Juleps aren’t especially handsome in those sweaty souvenir glasses at the Derby, and some purists would argue the things at Churchill Downs aren’t really juleps. By tradition, juleps are made of bourbon, but Churchill Downs has a contract with Early Times, which is technically a whisky, not a bourbon. Bourbon must be aged in new barrels, but Early Times is aged in used barrels. It may be a small distinction, but these things matter in Kentucky.

But a drink isn’t about the look. It’s about the taste, and this is where things fall apart.

Mint juleps aren’t awful. Once you find the sweet spot where the ingredients are balanced just right, they’re pretty good, but finding that sweet spot can be tricky. Not enough sugar and water, and it packs a wallop you’re not expecting from a supposedly genteel drink. Too much sugar and water, and it’s too sweet.

Here’s something else to consider: People in Kentucky only drink mint juleps at the races.

Once the Derby’s over, you’ll be hard pressed to find a mint julep anywhere in the commonwealth. In Kentucky, you know it’s spring because Kroger starts stocking fresh mint sprigs.

On Derby Day, if you really want to drink what the locals drink, have a sweet tea or a beer or a glass of wine.

But if you’re wondering, here’s how to make a mint julep:


  • 2 cups sugar
  • 2 cups water
  • 5 fresh mint sprigs for the syrup, plus extra for garnish
  • bourbon
  • crushed ice


  1. Boil the sugar and water together until the sugar dissolves
  2. Pour the syrup into a container with the mint sprigs and refrigerate overnight
  3. Fill a small cup with crushed ice
  4. Add a tablespoon of syrup and four tablespoons of bourbon and stir. Garnish with a fresh mint sprig
Photo by thp365 via Flickr.

Impress your friends: Make a batch of Kentucky beer cheese

A package of Kentucky brand beer cheese
Stores sell it, but it's more fun to make your own. (Image via Wikipedia)

Beer cheese is exactly what it sounds like it would be. It’s a dip made of beer and cheese, and garlic and pepper, to taste. You serve it with crackers and celery.

You’ll find it other places, but it’s mainly a Kentucky thing, specifically the Bluegrass region, which is the region in and around Lexington, where the horse farms are.

Beer cheese originated, the story goes, in the 1940s when a former state police captain named Johnny Allman began serving his cousin’s “snappy cheese” at a place called The Driftwood Inn, on the Kentucky River near Winchester.

Here’s a recipe from an old cookbook I have called Lexington in Good Taste.


It’s supposedly the actual recipe from Hall’s on the River, which is located on the site of Johnny Allman’s old restaurant, which is up the road from Fort Boonesborough, which was named for Daniel Boone.

Hall’s is kind of a local institution, and its beer cheese is world famous (at least in the Bluegrass), and I can’t believe they’d give the recipe away, so, while this probably isn’t really Hall’s actual recipe, it’s still pretty good.


  • 1 1/4 pounds sharp cheddar cheese, shredded
  • 1 cup flat beer
  • 3/8 teaspoon garlic (but I use more)
  • 3/8 teaspoon red pepper (or a splash of hot sauce)


  1. Combine in a food processor or mixer until smooth and creamy.
  2. No, really. That’s it. Set it out, with some crackers and celery, when you’re watching football.

Sign of the times: a ‘Casey Anthony’ dunking booth

Saw today there’s a Casey Anthony dunking booth at the Lexington Lions Club Bluegrass Fair in Lexington, Kentucky.

The booth is called State vs. Anthony, and while most dunking booths have 1 target, but this one has 2, labeled “INNOCENT” and “GUILTY.” You’re supposed to pick one and throw.

According to the fair’s website, the booth is there to give “fairgoers a chance to vent their frustration over the recent acquittal of Casey Anthony.” It says, “Casey will be on ‘trial’ in the booth each day from now until the fair closes on July 24.”  

(In case you live outside the United States and aren’t familiar with the case, Casey Anthony is the Florida woman accused of murdering her 2-year-old daughter. Since the trial ended, the real Casey Anthony has gotten death threats, while a woman mistaken for Casey Anthony was attacked in Oklahoma. Click here to read a recap of the trial on Wikipedia.)

The woman playing Casey Anthony in the dunking booth goads passersby by calling out, “I’m good with kids,” and tells a contestant who misses the “GUILTY” target, “If that’s the best you can do, you should’ve been a Florida prosecutor.”

Some people have a problem with this. Some people think it’s a lynch mob by proxy, but others seem to think it’s OK, maybe even healthy. When I told a guy at work about it, he cracked up and said it was the funniest thing he’d ever heard.

Other than heads of state and terrorists, I can’t recall an individual being held up to such ridicule and outright hatred, but, then again, I haven’t heard of a case quite like this one. (I haven’t heard whether Casey Anthony’s legal team thinks the dunking booth is good, clean fun or whether they might take action.)