My Julep Rebellion

Historical Seelbach Bar
Historical Seelbach Bar

As a former resident of the Bluegrass State, I am required by law to have a wealth of crazy stories about the Kentucky Derby. The truth of the matter is, though, by the time I was old enough to fully indulge in Hunter S. Thompson-esque Derby Day madness, I had moved away. Most of my (hazily remembered) Derby craziness occurred long after I’d left Louisville. My in-state Derby memories come from when I was a kid and my family would, ironically, make the trek away from Louisville to Lexington for the annual party thrown by my parents’ friends, one of whom once got into a fist fight with a bus and came out on top. But that’s another story.

My father never was the best of drivers, so the combination of his swerving (he has on multiple occasions been pulled over for drunk driving while stone cold sober) and the “gently” undulating Kentucky back roads made for a bit of nausea. My mother would make deviled eggs and stash them in the backseat. Even the most dedicated of deviled egg connoisseurs won’t claim to love them for the smell. That only made the nausea worse. To this day, despite my love of Kentucky and Kentucky Derby Day, I cannot stand to be in a room with deviled eggs.

In my later years, more enabled to embrace the decadent abandon that comes with Derby Day while still possessed of a rebellious punk streak, I decided that, along with my crusade against deviled eggs, I would also launch a crusade against the official drink of the Kentucky Derby, the Mint Julep. I have nothing against the Julep, mind you. I love them. I will have more than a few this Saturday. I was just and remain a contrarian. And anyway, cocktail historians can’t agree on the exact origin of the Julep, which may or may not have come from Virginia or Georgia instead of Kentucky. I think South Carolina lays claim to it as well.

The Seelbach Hotel
The Seelbach Hotel

The Julep is associated with Kentucky primarily thanks to Senator Henry Clay’s fondness for the cocktail, and its official association with the Derby began in 1938. Churchill Downs and Louisville distiller Brown-Forman entered into a contract that made Early Times the official whiskey of the drink, combined with fresh spearmint and simple syrup to make the julep in its purest form (if you are in a bar that is adding Sprite or ginger ale to their juleps, get the hell out of there). Early Times remains the preferred whiskey of the “infield” -- the part of Churchill Downs that gives Derby Day its rowdy reputation. Blue bloods prefer Churchill Downs’ premium julep, made with Woodford Reserve (the current official whiskey of the Kentucky Derby) and imported Irish mint, all served in a gold cup with a silver straw for around $1,000. If that sounds silly, assuage yourself with the knowledge that profits go to charities that support retired racehorses.

When I began my contrarian campaign, I decided the official cocktail of the Kentucky Derby should, in fact, be The Seelbach. Created at and named for one of Louisville’s most famous hotels (it was favored by Al Capone when he was in town, and F. Scott Fitzgerald was keenly fond of it as well), The Seelbach is verifiably not just a Kentucky cocktail, but a Louisville cocktail. It is a reflection of the Derby City’s heritage. Created in 1917 or 1918 at the hotel -- built by German immigrants (German immigrants having played such a vital role in the city’s history that we have a neighborhood called Germantown) -- it contains, among other things, bourbon (of course), Champagne (the city is named after a French monarch, after all), and Peychaud’s bitters from New Orleans (the riverboat ride from Louisville to New Orleans is reportedly when bourbon makers first noticed the beneficial effects of letting your whiskey sit in a barrel for a spell). The recipe was lost during Prohibition and the cocktail forgotten, until hotel renovations turned it up again in 1995.

The Seelbach Cocktail
The Seelbach Cocktail

It’s not as well-known or iconic as the julep, but arm yourself with the recipe this weekend and ask your bartender to forego one round of juleps and mix you up a Seelbach instead:

  • 1 oz. bourbon  (Keep it in the city. Use Old Forester Signature, distilled at Brown-Forman in downtown Louisville, just a stone’s throw from Churchill Downs)
  • 1/2 oz. Cointreau
  • 7 dashes Angostura bitters
  • 7 dashes Peychaud’s bitters
  • Champagne
  • Ice cubes

Stir ingredients briefly over ice, strain into a chilled flute, top with Champagne and garnish with a lemon twist.