Perspective: Judging the Rose Julep Competition

Chad Reid from 8-Up pours his cocktail entry
Chad Reid from 8-Up pours his cocktail entry

In Louisville, Kentucky the Mint Julep is a sure sign spring has arrived. It is the official cocktail of The Kentucky Derby, a sweet, minty bourbon drink Louisvillians are legally required to enjoy once a year. Well, maybe not legally but everyone is doing it, especially during Mint Julep Month. There are a lot of misconceptions out there about Mint Juleps, though. Plenty of people think they are supposed to be gross because they have only had bad ones. But a good Mint Julep is really quite lovely and there are plenty of bartenders out there who know their way around a silver julep cup.

A select few of those bartenders made it to the 13th annual Four Roses Bourbon Rose Julep Competition at the Festival Unveiled kickoff event for the Kentucky Derby Festival. Basically The Kentucky Derby Festival is an excuse to throw a party for several weeks before the actual Kentucky Derby, and we like to kick it off with a high-stakes cocktail competition. This year the folks at Four Roses asked me to be one of five judges for the competition, which awards first through third places for both judges picks as well as the people’s choice.

Judge's Choice 2nd place Dante Wheat from Butchertown Grocery pouring the Yellow Rose
Judge's Choice 2nd place Dante Wheat from Butchertown Grocery pouring the Yellow Rose

When I judge any cocktail, it has to be at least a semblance of its namesake. There were lots of fabulous cocktails at this competition that just weren’t Mint Juleps. One of them, which was light and refreshing with watermelon puree, won the people’s choice. Another was purple with flowers on top. They were all tasty and very pretty, but only a few were true variations on a bourbon-forward, lightly sweet and minty Julep. In the end, the most julep-like juleps took home the judges awards. The winners were:

Judges' Choice

1st place - Damien Cooke (Proof on Main)

2nd place - Dante Wheat (Butchertown Grocery)

People's Choice 1st Place Colleen McCarthy-Clark from Martini's Italian Bistro pouring the Southern Charm
People's Choice 1st Place Colleen McCarthy-Clark from Martini's Italian Bistro pouring the Southern Charm

3rd place - Chad Reid (8UP)

People's Choice

1st place - Colleen McCarthy-Clark (Martini's)

2nd place - Damien Cooke (Proof on Main)

3rd place - Ryan Rogers (Feast BBQ)

The winning julep by Damien Cooke contained a hint of cayenne and chocolate, but overall it was still a basic Mint Julep. He described the cocktail as he made it and it sounded like something I would not like. I ended up loving it, even sipping on it throughout the rest of the evening. The combination just works. Here is the recipe:

Ingredients:

  • 7-8 mint leaves (plus another 7-8 for garnish)
  • 2oz (60 ml) Four Roses
  • 1/4oz (7.5 ml) Pierre Ferand Dry Curaçao
  • 2 bar spoons of Fernet Branca
  • 1/2oz (15 ml) 1:1 Demerara simple syrup
  • 2 dashes Fee brothers Aztec Chocolate bitters
  • 2 light pinches of Cayenne Powder
  • Garnish with mint bouquet and a small dried chili pepper

Instructions:

Judge's Choice1st Place Damien Cooke from Proof on Main pouring the Hot to Trot Julep
Judge's Choice1st Place Damien Cooke from Proof on Main pouring the Hot to Trot Julep

Place 7-8 mint leaves in the bottom of the silver julep cup and press lightly with muddler to release the oils. Don't over muddle. In a mixing glass combine all other ingredients with cracked ice. Stir to combine ingredients and add dilution. Now add crushed ice to the mint julep cup to almost the top. Pour ingredients from the mixing glass through a hawthorn strainer over the ice in the julep cup. Then top the julep cup with a dome of crushed ice. Smack the remaking pieces of mint between the palms of your hands to release oils and aromatics, then arrange them in a bouquet in the julep cup directly across from where the straw will be placed. Lastly place the dried chili on top of the drink tucked nicely next to the mint bouquet.