Kentucky Derby weekend is coming, bringing bourbon-fueled parties and a renewed interest in one of America's most famous cocktails, the mint julep.
While many julep lovers will be diving for their high-priced "small batch," "single barrel" and "heritage" bourbons, the truth is that this is one drink where expensive bourbon definitely takes a back seat to lower-shelf brands. After all, the South's favorite cocktail carries a hefty dose of mint and sugar, and is cooled with a lot of ice, a recipe guaranteed to leave even the most rugged bourbon struggling to keep its identity. As for all those delicate hints of "raisins" and "creme brulee" that higher-priced bourbons allegedly carry -- well, they tend to disappear when mixed with anything stronger than water.
And there's an added plus to trolling the bottom shelf for your Kentucky Derby whiskey: Less expensive bourbons tend to carry a wealth of tradition. In fact, the five spirits that we've profiled below -- all of which cost less than $20 a bottle -- are rich with legend, and loaded with wonderful tales that you can relate while sipping your cool cocktail and watching the ponies!
Five Spirits Best for Mint Juleps
The 5 Best Bourbon Buys for Kentucky Derby Day
According to the company that bears his name, Evan Williams became Kentucky's first distiller in 1783. Regardless of whether this is true or not, there's no question that Williams' whiskey has made its mark: today, it's the second-highest selling whiskey in Kentucky, and is among the fastest-growing brands. In terms of flavor, it has a light, relatively sweet taste that mixes well in cocktails. As the L.A. Whisk(e)y Society, a rating group, notes, "I would take Evan over his competitors Jack and Jim. He tries harder."
Old Grand-Dad may be among the most inspirational bourbon on the market. It has been name-checked in songs by George Thorogood, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Hank Williams Jr., as well as in books by George Pelecanos, John Hawkes and Cormac McCarthy. And its fans extend beyond literature and music: President Harry Truman and Penn State coach Joe Paterno were both famously devoted to the bourbon. Unfortunately, while its reputation has survived for decades, Old Grand-Dad's flavor hasn't quite kept put with the times: it makes a decent julep, but has a somewhat astringent tone that partially explains why it was allowed to stay in business as a medicinal whiskey maker during Prohibition.
If you want a bourbon that proclaims your edginess, look no further than Rebel Yell, a company that has worked hard to position itself as the outsider brand. Its name alludes to a high-pitched holler that Confederate soldiers would make when charging into battle. In keeping with the theme, the whiskey wasn't distributed outside of the South until the early 1980s.
Most importantly, though, Rebel Yell is a favorite of some of Rock and Roll's most famous outlaws. Keith Richards is a big fan, and Billy Idol's song Rebel Yell was based on a night spent drinking the bourbon with Richards and Mick Jagger. But when it comes to flavor, the famed rebel is something of a pussycat: it is made with a large amount of wheat, which gives it a light, slightly sweet taste that might be appreciated by meeker drinkers.
For 25 years, mint juleps made with Early Times have been the official drink of the Kentucky Derby, despite the fact that the popular whiskey isn't actually a real bourbon. Officially, bourbons need to be aged in new oak barrels, but Brown-Forman, the company that makes Early Times, uses old barrels to age the whiskey. For purists, though, the company recently started producing "Early Times 354," a classic bourbon. Regardless of which spirit you choose, though, Early Times mixes nicely with mint and simple syrup, and offers a Kentucky Derby authenticity that you won't get from any other bourbon!
Most bourbons are made in Kentucky, but Virginia Gentleman, one of the most popular low-priced brands, is made in nearby Virginia. Some argue about whether or not it qualifies as a true bourbon, but the fact that the basic distillate comes from Kentucky soothes some raw feelings. Regardless of its origin, however, several reviewers have noted that the triple-distilled whiskey is the clear winner when it comes to flavor!
As with any other Southern food, there are thousands of Mint julep recipes, and afficionadoes endlessly argue over whether theirs is the true interpretation of the classic. Personally, I like the version developed by Cocktail Buzz: MINT JULEP
2 ounces bourbon
1/4–1/2 oz. simple syrup
8 spearmint leaves
shaved or crushed ice
Muddle leaves gently in simple syrup in a julep cup or similar glass. Add bourbon, then shaved ice all the way up to the top. Stir. Garnish with a mint sprig. Toss in a straw, if desired.