The Evolution of Kentucky Whiskey

Sam K. Cecil

Turner Publishing, 304 pp, $19.95

The 137th Kentucky Derby is on Saturday, May 7, and I will be watching. I am not so sure that the race truly is the “greatest two minutes in sport” as its promoters insist, but it is exciting.

I will feel some guilt about tuning in. Horse racing has an ugly underbelly. It seems like every couple of months one reads about race horses suffering neglect or mistreatment. Breeders are producing faster horses, but often at terrible costs to the animals. The 2008 Derby was a gruesome spectacle---filly Eight Belles broke both her front ankles and was put down on the Churchill Downs’ hallowed track.

Yet watch I will, and I will bury my apprehensions beneath Bourbon---lots of it. The Derby’s signature drink is the Mint Julep, a concoction more atavistic than the race. Each year, over 100,000 mint juleps are guzzled by Derby-goers, and Lord only knows how many are knocked back by those of us hopping about in front of our televisions.

The Mint Julep cocktail has been around since at least the 1790s. John Davis’s Travels of Four Years and a Half in the United States (1803) defined a Julep as “a dram of spirituous liquor that has mint steeped in it, taken by Virginians of a morning.” Juleps have been a featured drink at the Kentucky Derby since 1938. The modern version is a mixture of whiskey (2 ounces), sugary water (i.e., ½ ounce of “simple syrup”), sprigs of mint, and lots of crushed ice.

That early Americans put mint in their whiskey is no surprise---doing so helped mask the awful taste. For most of its four hundred year history, American whiskey has been a rough drink. Distillers usually made it from whatever excess grain they could get their mitts on. Then they sold it as quickly as they could. As Sam K. Cecil’s Bourbon: The Evolution of Kentucky Whiskey points out, it was not until after Prohibition that Kentucky’s distillers committed themselves to producing a refined spirit that could compete with Scotch whisky. The Kentuckians did this by aging the whiskey in barrels for at least four years, which is more than twice the time required by federal regulations.

Today, liquor store shelves are crammed with terrific Bourbons, like Buffalo Trace. Snazzy new brands have arrived, like Angel’s Envy, a whiskey that is aged in both charred oak and port wine barrels. Even long-time, successful whiskey-makers have upped their games over the past 20 years: Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark, Old Forester, and even Wild Turkey now offer super-premium versions of their Bourbons that are priced at $40 or more.

All of which makes the Mint Julep a bit of an anachronism. Why would anyone drown delicious, high quality whiskey in sugary water, mint, and ice? It makes about as much sense as making Sangria from a first growth Bordeaux.

Yet May 7 will find me plucking leaves from my mint bush and stirring up Juleps. Like watching the horses run, it is what we do on Derby Day.

Kevin R. Kosar is the author of Whiskey: A Global History (Reaktion).

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