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For bars, Derby weekend is julep time

For bars, Derby weekend is julep time

It's Kentucky Derby time, and along with watching the races and ladies in big hats, sipping on mint juleps is a time-honored tradition.
Louisville restaurants like Proof on Main are getting ready for an increase in traffic this weekend from visitors in town for the Derby. Sarah Robbins, vice president of operations and general manager, said julep sales on Derby weekend jump to "at least triple to five times of the number we serve normally."
Proof also will offer brunch and a special pre-fixe dinner menu Friday through Sunday, which Robbins said maximizes the opportunities to serve "a moving target" of customers during the weekend.
"And God love Louisville [since] they extend our liquor license from 2 a.m. to 6 a.m., and that sort of sets the tone for the weekend," she said.
"This is the second year we've done a weekend promotion and it's been really successful," Robbins added. "A lot of people want to kind of just have their experience for the Derby."
For those not planning to head down to Louisville, several restaurants across the country are offering viewing parties or Derby-related promotions.
The Legal Sea Foods chain, for example, is offering mint juleps for $9.25 at all locations through May 5.
The Rye House, a relatively new restaurant and bar in New York City, is hosting a Kentucky Derby viewing party on Saturday, offering a special menu that includes a "bucket ‘o' fried chicken" and mint juleps from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. For $10, guests can get their mint julep in a souvenir silver cup and order $5 julep refills throughout the event.
Though juleps are most associated with the Kentucky Derby, the drink possesses enough history and character to stand on their own as a refreshing addition to any cocktail menu with roots in Southern drinking culture.
Jim Kearns, who manages the bar program at Rye House with Lynnette Marrero, said the julep is a popular drink at the restaurant all year. He attributes some of the popularity to the New York market, where cocktail bars have exposed more people to classic cocktails and brown spirits.
Kearns and Marrero previously worked together at Freeman's restaurant in the city's Lower East Side, where the mint julep was also popular, especially in the summer.
"It's a great summer cocktail and completely pleasant," said Robbins of Proof on Main in Louisville. "In that nice icy glass and with fresh mint, it's not that different from a mojito and is a popular drink in Louisville as a regular drink."
Jackson Cannon, bar manager at Eastern Standard in Boston, said mint julep sales usually spike around Derby time. On Derby day alone the restaurant and bar will serve about 150 mint juleps, and sales for the cocktail hold steady throughout May.
However, Jackson noted that the mint julep is a popular drink all year at the Eastern Standard, which sells about 50 per week on average.
"I'm from Virginia, and serious mixologists recognize that the julep as we know it originated there," Cannon said in an e-mail, adding, "No bias on my part!"
For that reason Cannon specifically adds "Old Dominion Fashion" in the description of the mint julep on the menu.
"It's to evoke a time when this cocktail, or mint sling as it was known, was coming into being and to differentiate it from its offspring the Kentucky, New Orleans and D.C. style of juleps," he wrote.
Though a straightforward cocktail, the devil is in the details when it comes to the mint julep, with methods of preparation differing depending on whom you ask.
For example, Cannon's recipe for the mint julep calls for a "fistful," or around 12 leaves of mint placed directly into a lowball glass. Simple syrup is added and then "persistently, but carefully" muddled with the mint until they go limp in the syrup. Kentucky bourbon is added and allowed to steep for four minutes. The drink is finished with crushed ice and garnished with plenty of mint.
Kearns describes his own method: "The way I teach people to do it is to muddle up mint temporarily in simple syrup, or whatever sweetens your base. Strain off the mint and add your spirit, which typically is a rye or bourbon, then muddle the mint with the sugar and rye or bourbon. Top that with crushed ice and mint. The rule of thumb for a julep is ‘a mountain of ice and a forest of mint.'"
And at Proof, the julep is made by pressing mint leaves at the bottom of the glass with a splash of soda, then adding a little of simple syrup and bourbon.
This year, Proof is also featuring the Julep Down Under, created by head bartender Jenny Pittman. For the Julep Down Under, mint leaves are muddled in eucalyptus syrup and then stirred with mango puree. Then bourbon, crushed ice are added along with a mango slice and mint leaves for garnish.
Robbins explained that the Julep Down Under provides a less intense and non-whiskey option for guests who still want to indulge in a julep drink for the Derby.
At Rye House, the mint julep recipe goes through changes along with the seasons. The most recent Rye House Julep is an apricot and tarragon version. Kearns explained that a peated Irish whiskey is used to create a smoky and intense counterpoint to the high notes of the tarragon and fruity apricot flavor.
The flavorful elements of the Rye House julep are typically infused in the spirit. "Spirit is usually the best way to go. Alcohol is a friendly molecule and extracts that flavor a lot faster than anything else," he said.
The infusion process can be long or short depending on the ingredient. The apricot and tarragon infusion was a two-part process since the apricot infusion takes days, while the tarragon only needs a couple of hours and is added to the apricot infusion as needed.
The previous seasonal julep, for the winter, was a spiced fig julep featuring pear brandy. Another version featured peaches with applejack brandy floated on top.
 "The funny thing is, we did find that the more ‘seasonal' it is the more of it we sell," Kearns said. "When phasing out the peach one, peaches were going out of season and we infused everything in the whiskey to sell it off, and the sales lagged. When we introduced the spiced fig one it sold like hotcakes. Same with the apricot."
Besides crushed ice and mint, another well-known accoutrement of the mint julep is the silver or pewter cup. While considered authentic to the julep drinking experience, it can be abandoned when it comes to operations practicality, many bartenders say.
At Rye House, the juleps outside of the Derby event are served in regular highball glasses. Eastern Standard and Proof use old fashioned glasses, also known as a lowball or rocks glasses.
"We don't use them just because of the volume," Robbins said of the silver cups.
Kearns joked that the $10 commemorative cup special for Derby Day at Rye House was more of a deposit than a purchase incentive.
"One thing Lynnette and I noticed from years working at Freeman's is that your julep cup supply tends to mysteriously dwindle by the end of the season," he said.
Contact Sonya Moore at [email protected].


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