Bartender’s Best

By Charlie Wohlrab

Run for the Roses

Saturday, May 2 would have been the Kentucky Derby. However, due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Derby has been rescheduled for Saturday, Sept. 5.  That means you have plenty of time to gather the essential ingredients to make a Mint Julep, the official Derby drink. 

Thousands of Juleps are served on Derby Day.   Traditionally, this drink is served in a pewter or silver cup with handles to keep the drink cold.  The “official” Mint Julep at Churchill Downs consists of Woodford Reserve Bourbon, mint simple syrup, crushed ice and a sprig of mint.  The  simple syrup recipe is simple enough, but it requires boiling, straining, and planning ahead, so I use a slightly different recipe for my Mint Julep. As for the cup, I use an 8-ounce cocktail glass. I could use Moscow Mule cups, but it begs the question: Mules at a horse race? I don’t think so. The 8-ounce cocktail glass works just fine. 

Crushed ice is a key ingredient for a Julep on Derby Day.  Many years ago, crushed ice in May in Kentucky was a sign of affluence so it would be piled high in the cup to show how well off you were. As for the bourbon, there are several different brands with slightly different flavor profiles that work quite well. Some brands have different bourbons with different prices, proofs and profiles. I normally have three to four different bourbons in my home bar. That is how different in taste they can be. As usual, do your “research” and find the ones you like. Normally, I make my Mint Juleps with Old Crow Bourbon, the original sour mash Kentucky Bourbon (so they say).  This is a fairly priced (inexpensive) bourbon with a clean flavor profile which makes a nice Julep. I save the Woodford Reserve for enjoying my straight “on the rocks” cocktail. However, on Derby Day, I like to use Four Roses Bourbon because it “runs for the roses.”

The traditional Mint Julep consists of two ounces of bourbon, sugar and mint. As you can see, the ingredients are fairly simple. Some people like to add an ounce or two of water to soften the drink and lower the “kick.” Obviously, bourbon is the key ingredient, so it is a fairly strong drink. I just use a splash of soda to smooth out the flavor.  I also like to use dissolved sugar as it sweetens the drink more easily and uniformly. 

Back in the ’80s, everyone had little spice racks on their counters.  The racks had 10 to 12,  two-ounce glass bottles with various spices in a cheap wooden frame. Over the years, these racks have long since been emptied and sent to closets, garages and yard sales. However, if you do come across a rack, one of its little bottles is perfect to pre-dissolve your sugar. 

First, fill the bottle with sugar, add hot water from the tap, shake and repeat until you can no longer add water. The solution will be cloudy. Set it on the counter, and wait a few minutes. It will be clear with a precipitate (undissolved sugar, the water can only “hold” so much and is saturated). Use the clear liquid to sweeten your drinks.  As you pour off the liquid you can add more water to dissolve the remaining sugar until there is no sugar left. I am no Food Science Major, but this seems like an easy way to sweeten a drink.

To make a Mint Julep first pour a bar spoon of the dissolved sugar in the bottom of a mixing glass, add a few mint leaves, crush with a “muddling stick” (if you don’t have  one a wooden spoon works quite well), add the bourbon (and water if you prefer), give a few gentle stirs with a bar spoon, and strain into a cocktail glass heaping with crushed ice (a sign of prosperity).  Add a splash of soda (if you prefer), garnish with a sprig of mint, add a straw, and sit back and enjoy.

This recipe is dependent on personal taste, the Bourbon, the sweetness, and whether or not you add water or seltzer. There is the “Official Julep of Churchill Downs,” if you are lucky enough to score tickets and watch the race in person, but if you are not there and have to watch the event on television from your sofa or easy chair, make a Mint Julep to your personal preference.  Sit back and relax and enjoy the unofficial rite of spring with all its traditions, this year in early fall.

Charlie Wohlrab is a mixologist whose motto, “Drinking. . .more than a hobby” has been topmost in his mind since he first started tending bar while getting his Pharmacy degree. Now retired, when he’s not restoring his older home in New Jersey, he’s made it his goal to elevate the experience of having a daily cocktail from something mundane to something more exciting. He is now Harrisburg Magazine’s official bartender in residence. 

My recipes are like my opinions,” says Wohlrab. “They continue to be refined as I try new products and work with old standbys.” Currently working on a book about cocktails, Wolhrab welcomes comments from his readers. He can be contacted at