Drink of the Week: The Grandstand Julep

the Grandstand Julep.The first week in May is always a dilemma in the making here at Drink of the Week Plaza as it actually pits two of the year’s biggest drinking excuses holidays against each other. Since tomorrow is Derby Day and Cinco de Mayo is in the middle of next week, I’m going to start with that and follow it up with a belated Mexican-themed cocktail for next week. Not ideal, I know. It is, of course, entirely coincidental that mysterious forces bribed gifted me with a free bottle of Wild Turkey 101 Straight Bourbon and this week’s intriguing, imaginative variation on a traditional Mint Julep.

Though I still have a spot soft for good Old Fitzgerald when you can find it, I have to admit that this expression of one of the best known names in American whiskey is about as good a high-proof bourbon as you’re likely to get for under $20.00 for a fifth. It offers a very nice balance of sweet and tough flavors that have made for plenty of good reviews and a number of good cocktails.

Which brings us to this week’s variation on the ultimate Derby Day classic. It pairs the bourbon with, of all things, an artichoke-derived amaro-style liqueur beloved of the cocktail cognoscenti. Can these two crazy ingredients have a shot at a long and happy life together? Let’s find out.

The Grandstand Julep

1 1/2 ounces Cynar
3/4 ounce Wild Turkey 101 Bourbon
1/2 ounce simple syrup
1/2 ounce fresh lemon juice
1/2 ounce fresh grapefruit juice
12 mint leaves
2 ounces soda water
2 dashes Fee Brother’s Grapefruit Bitters

Build this one in a julep cup if you’ve got one and a good size rocks glass if you don’t. (I don’t!) Combine the Cynar, Wild Turkey, juice, mint leaves (given the differing sizes of mint leaves, the number is an approximation at best), and simple syrup…you can also substitute two and half teaspoons of superfine sugar if that’s easier. Gently muddle the leaves in the liquid.

Next, add crushed ice, follow with the soda water and then top the whole thing off with the grapefruit bitters. Start to sip slowly and toast our equine friends. Alternatively, you can toast W.C. Fields, who is supposed to have said that horse sense is what keeps horses from betting on people.


While you could theoretically try this drink with another bourbon (it better be a strong one), there isn’t much room for messing around with the main ingredients here. Mainly that’s because there’s only one one type of Cynar available and it’s made by the manufacturers of Campari.

The exception is actually your ice, which really does need to be crushed. I’m lazy and tried this drink several times with ordinary ice and found it tasty and relatively well balanced but bordering on cloying. Crushing the ice, while admittedly a bit of a hassle, opened the drink up and took the edge off the very sweet/very bitter flavors. My only other advice is not to drink this one too fast. You want to let that crushed ice melt a bit. Take your time with this one and leave the racing to the horsies.


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Drink of the Week pre-5/5 special, part 2: the Mint Julep

the Mint Julep

We conclude our May 4, 2012 doubleheader with one of the most legendary of all cocktails and the ultimate Derby Day tradition. It’s also a drink, I’m ashamed to admit, I’ve only tried for myself in the last couple of weeks.

According to such experts as New Orleans bartender Chris MacMillian, the Mint Julep was to the 19th century what the Martini was to the 20th. As MacMillians also reminds us, this super classic drink’s roots actually go back far further — juleps were eulogized in 1634 by “Paradise Lost” poet John Milton in his “Comus,” which some of us old English majors have actually read, even if we don’t remember a word of it. Today, the bourbon, sugar and mint concoction is primarily associated with Southern belles and gents in old movies seeking a cool libation on a powerful hot day, not to mention the ultra-famed horse race which will once again be run tomorrow afternoon.

As I heard from numerous sources, however, the actual juleps served in recent years at the home of the Kentucky Derby have been anything but satisfying. If word on the cocktail street is correct, Churchill Downs has fallen prey to the #1 enemy of good cocktails — a pre-mix! Tragic, perhaps but also almost understandable given the enormous crowds who arrive each year for Derby Day. In any case, if you want a really good Mint Julep, you’ll have to go a high quality bar with a decent mixologist in residence or, of course, you may make one yourself.

The Mint Julep

2.5-3 ounces bourbon whiskey
1/2 ounce simple syrup or 1 tablespoon sugar and a splash of water
About 5-8 fresh mint leaves
Lots of ice — preferably crushed.

Combine mint leaves, simple syrup or sugar (preferably superfine or powdered) and water in a rocks/old fashioned glass or, if you have one (I don’t) a traditional metal julep glass. Gently muddle the mixture, being careful not to overdo it as, we are warned, over-muddling mint can release some displeasing bitterness. Fill up your glass with ice, add the bourbon of your choice, and stir. Toast your favorite racehorse and sip slowly.

There’s no doubt about it, I’m a piker when it comes to the Mint Julep. I’ve made a few decent versions of it but I don’t own the special sack — called a Lewis bag — or the mallet needed for making the crushed ice fine enough to make the julep a sort of highly alcoholic snow cone and I also don’t own a blender. Even so, this drink works fine with lots of ordinary ice, particularly if you’re a bourbon lover, as I am. I made some very good versions of it using the remainder of my Angel’s Envy — I still had some left over from my exploration of the Chicago Sour — but I had  good luck as well using some very inexpensive yet sweeter and highly drinkable Evan Williams brew. I’m sure Maker’s Mark or really any brand of bourbon you like a lot would work delightfully.

The only problems I encountered were when I tried to dial back the sweetness. None other than James Bond in “Goldfinger” ordered his drink tart. When I tried it that way, the flavors simply didn’t come together. Just because you own a license to kill and save the world once a year doesn’t mean you know everything.

Of course, I don’t know everything either. Something tells me the drink, as prepared a bit differently from me by Chris MacMillian himself below, was really something.


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