Meet Kentucky's Famous Cocktails

Celebrate the Kentucky Derby with these 3 classic cocktails

It’s the Kentucky Derby this weekend, folks, and while the mint julep has been associated with Churchill Downs since 1938, there are a couple of other legendary drinks that were created in the Bluegrass State that should never be overlooked, on this day or any other.

If you happen to have a bottle of bourbon or rye gathering dust at your place (shame on you), then now is the time to break it out and get mixing. Here are a few recipes and tips on how to make them like a pro.

The Mint Julep

Naren Young

Ironically, the first Saturday in May is a sad day for the mint julep at Churchill Downs, even though they sell well over 120, 000 of them. Sure, people drink them like water on Kentucky’s biggest day of the year. But truth be told — and I can speak from firsthand experience here — the juleps served up at the Derby are a sweet, watery mess. In fact, no one in Kentucky really drinks juleps at all, except on Derby Day.

The good news, however, is that you can easily make a great one yourself in the comfort of your home. All you need is a good quality, high-proof bourbon, some sugar, the freshest, most spritely mint you can find, and some crushed ice. It absolutely must be crushed ice. The drink may taste strong and sweet at first, but after only a few minutes, the ice will dilute and soften the drink and it will transform into a sublime and ambrosial mix that will be about as refreshing (and Southern) as you’ll find anywhere. Just remember to sip slowly — it’s a long day you have ahead of you.

Click for the Mint Julep recipe.

Naren YoungThe Old Fashioned

Like many of the great cocktails that were created in America and have gone "international," the Old Fashioned is sadly a mere shadow of its former self. Nowadays, in the majority of bars across the country, your barkeep has probably muddled some heinous mélange of sugar, orange, pineapple, and cherry into your Old Fashioned, delivering a sickly sweet mess that might even be — god forbid — shaken to within an inch of its life.

Most of this artificial frippery was most likely added during Prohibition, when many drinks were doctored in such a way so their base spirit was rendered tasteless. In actual fact, the Old Fashioned Whiskey Cocktail is a simple, no-nonsense affair that can be made by any budding home mixologist that has in their possession the following: American whiskey (a peppery rye will deliver the best results), Angostura bitters (or feel free to sub in any other type as your imagination allows), sugar, a spoon, and some good quality ice. The history of the Old Fashioned is about as muddy as the Mississippi, but all roads generally lead to the Pendennis Club in Louisville, Ky., built in 1928 (during Prohibition) and still going strong today. Truth be told, no one really knows. What we do know is that a perfectly made Old Fashioned is about as classy and civilized as you’ll find in the pantheon of great cocktails.

Click for the Old Fashioned recipe.


The Seelbach

Naren YoungIf there is one bar that one should visit on a trip to Louisville, Ky., it is the iconic Seelbach Bar, tucked away off the majestic lobby of the Seelbach Hilton Hotel. Built in 1905, it inspired F. Scott Fitzgerald to use it as the backdrop of Tom and Daisy Buchanan’s wedding in The Great Gatsby. Now, after a recent $12 million renovation, the Old World charm of the hotel remains, yet has been updated with more modern technology installed in the rooms. Sadly, this also means there are television screens in the legendary bar, and you might suffer at some of the house bands that often play in there nightly.

But you will enjoy a fine cocktail at the long mahogany bar, replete with a monstrous back bar with close to 100 ryes and bourbons. Their eponymous cocktail — still unknown to many — was created in 1917 (by whom, no one knows) and is an elegant mix of bourbon, Cointreau, Angostura and Peychaud’s bitters, and topped off with a whisper of champagne. There are sweet vanilla notes from the bourbon, subtle dry orange notes from the Cointreau, spice and anise from the duo of bitters, while the champagne brings dryness to the finish. Located only a few minutes from Churchill Downs, the place will be packed this weekend, with everyone raising a glass of this delightful house cocktail.

Click here for the Seelbach recipe.


Naren Young is an award-winning food, spirits, and cocktail writer who has also built a career as a widely traveled and respected bartender. You can currently find him behind the stick at Saxon + Parole in Manhattan’s East Village. Or follow him on twitter: @forkandshaker

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