And They’re Off.…..!
“Civilization begins with distillation.” William Faulkner
“Civilization begins with distillation.” William Faulkner
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Faulkner, from the very beginning of his career, drank while he wrote. He claimed, “I usually write at night. I always keep my whiskey within reach.” I confess, over the years I have shared this writing ritual with him. It has made for some very interesting conversations with network standards and practice executives over certain passages of dialog and character behavior…
In the early 1800’s, doctors used the word julep to describe “a kind of liquid medicine.” These were remedies in which leaves from the mentha family were used to soften the taste of the medication. Of course, this is not to suggest the Mint Julep is good for you, but it may be what Faulkner had in mind when he said, “Isn’t anythin’ Ah got whiskey won’t cure.” He was so much an authority on the drink that the famous Musso & Frank Grill in Los Angeles let him mix his own.
Every year, on the first Saturday in May, the best 3 year old thoroughbred horses in the country gather to “Run For the Roses” at Churchill Downs in Kentucky.
And in our house the Kentucky Derby is a holiday — As big and celebrated as Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter. I’ve spent many a Thanksgiving at the track being thankful for the long-shots, the day after Christmas the family heads to opening day at Santa Anita, and Easter marks the start of our Derby handicapping.
Everyone has their own way of handicapping – Horse owners will tell you jockeys don’t make a difference, trainers will tell you a jockey can make the horse, and jockeys will tell you that even under the most perfect circumstances, excellent breeding and pedigree, good track conditions, favorable post position, etc., luck will be the deciding factor. And in our house we will always bet on the grey.
There’s a lot of superstition and tradition that goes along with the track. Years ago, I was standing at the rail with one of my best friends, Cecily Adams, and her dad, Don, and a bunch of his cronies. Great famous funny men, who were all big racing fans — Harvey Korman, Dick Van Patten, Dick Yarmy, and Tim Conway. It was like being in a Damon Runyon novel or a Bukowski poem – but with a lot more punch lines.
These guys were such devoted fans, that when you went to Don’s “office” for a meeting it was his box at Hollywood Park. Back in the day, these guys would only take bookings at clubs near a racetrack.
That particular day I was with them, Don was down. He had been having a losing streak that had lasted weeks. When I suggested that he just buy a win ticket on every horse in the field to guarantee a winner and bust the streak, he looked at me like I had kicked his dog and said, “That would be cheating.”
One day my Daddy and I were at Oaklawn in Hot Springs, Arkansas — it’s a great old racetrack with one of the best drink and oyster bars in the area – and we were on a losing streak.
Our picks were so cold that we ended up throwing the program on the ground and pitching pennies at the names, handicapping be damned. Win or lose, there is nothing like watching those beautiful animals doing what they were born to do – and when your 12 to 1 shot noses out the favorite, it’s sublime. And a hell of a way to break a streak.
Our Derby parties are a hot ticket. Over the years our house has even been nicknamed the Clubhouse. This annual gathering is an excuse to wear a hat in the house, sing “My Old Kentucky Home,” get in on the betting pools, teach the kids “Track Math,” eat some great southern food, scream at the television during the most exciting 2 minutes in sports… and of course drink Mint Juleps.
The Mint Julep is the signature cocktail of Kentucky and the Derby.
120,000 mint juleps are expected to be served over the two day KY Derby and KY Oaks races at Churchill Downs this weekend. However, debates have raged over the centuries about origin and recipe. Cocktailians from Georgia and Northern Virginia will throw-down with any Kentuckian over the julep birthright. And for such a simple drink, there are many variations – Commander’s Palace adds 1/2 ounce of brandy to theirs. Yum!
At the Clubhouse this Saturday for the 135th running of the Kentucky Derby we’ll be pouring Dale DeGroff’s classic version.
Nancylee Myatt is a writer and producer living in New Orleans, LA. She is an urban cowgirl who is an avid fan of horse racing, polo and the culture of cocktails… oh, and the drinking of them.
Mint Julep Tours, “The Essential Cocktail” by Dale Degroff. “Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails” by Ted Haigh aka Dr. Cocktail. “Hemingway & Bailey’s Bartending Guide to Great American Writers“ by Mark Bailey. Commander’s Palace in New Orleans.
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(from Dale DeGroff’s book “The Essential Cocktail”)
2 sprigs of mint, preferably perky looking spearmint
3/4 ounce of simple syrup
2 1/2 ounces bonded bourbon (like Old Forester, Bookers, Blanton’s or Maker’s Mark)
Powdered sugar, for dusting, optional
Gently bruise 1 of the mint sprigs in the bottom of a mixing glass with syrup – use just enough pressure to release the mint’s oils, but don’t shred the leaves. Add the bourbon, but there’s no need to mix here, because you’re going to do a lot of it next. Strain into a highball glass or your favorite silver julep chalice filled with crushed ice and swirl the ice with a bar spoon until the outside of the glass frosts, which can take a few minutes for a thick glass or just a few seconds if you’re using a proper silver julep cup (a 10-ounce sterling-silver chalice) or its approximation; if using glass, the thinner the better. Top off with a bit more crushed ice, as the level will have dropped with all that stirring, and stir briefly again. Garnish with the remaining mint sprig. If it’s your preference, sprinkle the sugar over the top of the drink, which looks like yet more frosting of snow. Also, if it’s your preference, insert two straws that are about 1 inch taller than the glass—ideally, these straws, a well as your cups, are sterling. Counsel your guests to hold the drink tightly, because all the frost makes it likely to slip through their grasp. One of the beauties of the proper julep cup is he reverse-tapered body, sometimes with a lip at the rim, allowing the imbiber every opportunity to rescue a slipping drink.