The “run for the roses,” the 2019 Kentucky Derby is Saturday, May 4, and the Derby features twenty rip-roaring horses, the world’s best 3-year-old thoroughbreds on Churchill Downs’ 1 1/4-mile track for your betting and viewing enjoyment.
May is Derby month and the biggest reason we do not retire the brown spirits just yet ahead of lighter cocktails suitable for summertime. Cinco de Mayo is the day after the Derby, and it’s a tequila and beer driven fiesta.
But Derby day is about the horses, hats and the bourbon drinks celebrating the lush green Kentucky locale that is famous for producing some of the finest American whiskey.
The Derby has a lovely history and was founded by Royal Ascot race (UK) fan Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr. in 1875. It is regarded as the oldest sporting event in American history and is a culmination of many races with the top scoring winners earning their spot to race in the final Derby race at Churchill Downs.
The Kentucky Derby airs on NBC this Saturday at 6:50 p.m. ET. The race is always held on the first Saturday of May.
So saddle up, in honor of this fun event, we found the best bourbons you can check out to make some tantalizing new and classic julep bourbon drinks based on recipes given to us by some top mixologists and distilleries across America.
Our top 2019 bourbon picks are from destinations in Kentucky and beyond, and include:
Hillrock Solera Aged Bourbon
This is one of the best bourbons you can buy without going broke.
The Hillrock Solera Aged Bourbon begins as a mash, aged in oak and hand bottled at the distillery estate in the Hudson Valley Highlands.
Vanilla, fig and a rye-like spice define this lush bourbon that is finish aged in Oloroso sherry casks and kept in the pyramid barrel-stack style called the Solera aging method that sherry, cognac, and port are often made.
This method blends the youngest with the oldest whiskey so that, in time, a complex and consistent whiskey is produced. This hand-crafted spirit is made in small controlled batches onsite in their malt house with three different estate grains.
Considered an architectural beauty and lovingly maintained, Hillrock Distillery’s stunning view overlooks their barley fields with the distant Berkshire Mountains and Appalachian Trail visible.
Make sure to book one of their tasting tours.
Hillrock Mint Julep
- 2 oz Hillrock Solera Bourbon
- 1/2 oz simple syrup
- 3 – 4 fresh mint leaves
In a rocks glass, gently muddle the mint leaves to release their oils. Fill the glass with crushed ice and pour the bourbon and simple syrup over the ice, stir just long enough to blend ingredients and garnish with fresh mint.
Hudson Whiskey Baby Bourbon
Have you ever heard of “Baby Bourbon”? Hudson Baby Bourbon Whiskey was the first bourbon ever made in New York. The foundation of this pioneering bourbon is 90 percent Empire State corn, sourced from local New York family farmers. The distillery is owned by Tuthilltown Spirits, founded in 2003.
Interesting side note: Tuthilltown was the first NY distillery built since Prohibition. In 2005, the distillery brought the tradition of small batch spirits production back to the Hudson Valley with the creation of Hudson Whiskey…and their baby?
It’s the distillery’s signature expression, the Hudson Baby Bourbon.
Today, Hudson Whiskey produces handcrafted, artisan spirits, one small batch at a time. Each bottle they sell is hand-dipped in wax and hand-numbered.
Hudson Whiskey Baby Bourbon Mint Julep
- 3 parts Baby Bourbon
- ½ part sugar syrup
- 9 fresh mint leaves
Place mint leaves in the base of the cup, add sugar and softly press to release oils. Add crushed ice and stir gently. Keep stirring and adding ice until frozen. Garnish with loads of sprigs of mint.
Duke Kentucky Bourbon
This Kentucky bourbon was crafted and created when John Wayne’s son, Ethan Wayne, found his father’s handwritten notes along with bottles preserved for over 40 years in their family’s archives.
Ethan, along with the co-founder of Duke’s, Chris Radomski, recreated the bourbon that John Wayne left behind. After years they hit on the perfect recipe and Duke Spirits came to be, created under the guidance of Master Distiller Jacob Call at the historic O.Z. Tyler Distillery in Owensboro, KY.
Founded in 1885, this distillery holds the 11th license in the state of Kentucky to operate a distillery. This bourbon is aged in French oak and has an alcohol-forward presence with a complex spicy vanilla caramel finish.
- 1½ oz Duke Bourbon
- ½ oz Fresh Lime Juice
- ¼ oz Simple Syrup
- 2-3 Mint Leaves
- Top with Ginger Beer
- Garnish: Candied Ginger, Mint Sprig
Roll mint to release essential oils then add the bourbon, lime juice, and simple syrup and shake with ice then strain into a collins glass or a mule mug filled with ice.
Clyde May’s Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Spicy like rye and sweet with fruit notes like peaches, Clyde May’s Straight Bourbon Whiskey is a perfect mixer bourbon for fabulous Old Fashioned’s, Manhattans, juleps and more.
- 1.5 oz Clyde May’s Straight Bourbon Whiskey
- 1.5 oz Ginger Beer
- 1.5 oz Blue Moon Beer
- .5 oz finest call fresh citrus sour
Shake over ice and top off with beers, pour into a pilsner glass, and garnish with a lemon and orange wedge
Four Roses Small Batch
This is a delightful classic bourbon with a complex layering of notes. A blend of spice, rich fruit, sweet oak and ends with a rich caramel sweet spice and vanilla finish.
Four Roses Small Batch bourbon has a truly sweet and spicy balance and serves as a fantastic mixer for classic bourbon drinks.
Four Roses Mint Julep
From a recipe given to Monsters & Critics for re-print by Tommy Flynn, Beverage Director of Paper Daisy
- 1 ½ ounce Four Roses Small Batch Bourbon
- ½ ounce dark rum
- ½ ounce Jacoulot Crème de Peche de Vigne (or any Peach liqueur)
- 4½ ounce mint-infused simple syrup (easy recipe here)
- 2 dashes Angostura bitters
- 2 dashes orange bitters
- Cava (sparkling Spanish wine) to top
- Mint springs and rose petals for garnish (optional)
- Combine all ingredients except Cava in a Julep cup with crushed ice
- Stir with a swizzle
- Top with Cava and add garnishes
Woodford Reserve is the official Presenting Sponsor of the Kentucky Derby and is crafted at the historic Woodford Reserve Distillery found in thoroughbred country in Versailles, Kentucky.
Woodford is also a National Historic Landmark and has amazing tasting tours too.
The Mode Bourbon Sazerac
Mixologist Tyler Armstrong of Boise, Idaho’s The Mode Lounge offered one of the best cocktail recipes we have tried with bourbon.
- 2 oz Woodford Reserve Bourbon
- .5 oz lime juice
- .25 double Demerara sugar (2 parts sugar/1part water, bring one cup of water to a boil, add in 2 cups of sugar, and stir while boiling until all of the sugar crystals are dissolved)
- 10 dashes Peychaud’s bitters
- .25 oz Absinthe rinse (make sure cup is ice cold before “rinsing the Absinthe inside the cup)
- Build in Moscow mule cup
- Add ice, top with ginger beer
- Garnish with a freshmint sprig
The Perfect Mint Julep
- 2 parts Woodford Reserve Bourbon
- 1 part Water
- 1 tsp. Sugar
- Crushed Ice
- 4 sprigs Fresh Mint
Express the essential oils in the mint and rub them inside the glass or copper cup. To the same glass, add sugar, water, bourbon, and crushed ice. Stir. Garnish with more crushed ice and fresh mint.
The Kentucky Derby airs Saturday beginning at 2:30 PM ET on NBC