THE MINT is sprouting. The ice is melting. And the bourbon, like all of us, is aging. But after a mint julep or two, who cares?
Derby Day, a day devoted to sipping, singing and sometimes betting, is Saturday. For touts, the big event is the horse race, the 126th running of the Kentucky Derby, when 3-year-old horses race 1 1/4 miles around Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky. The Derby is the first leg of horse-racing's Triple Crown, with the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont following on its heels.
For the rest of us, Derby Day is a great excuse to hoot and holler. It is May. It is Saturday. The weather, according to songwriter Stephen Foster, will feature sunlight shining brightly on the homestead.
Locally, one source of mint and merriment will be the Federal Hill home of Charlie and Joan Brown. For the past 12 years, on the first Saturday in May, the Browns have held a Derby party. Guests sip juleps, eat ham and watch the race on television.
One Derby day in that stretch, the Browns found themselves in England, a land of Scotch drinkers. They had trouble finding bourbon and had to settle for Wild Turkey instead of their usual brand, Maker's Mark.
The timing also was troubling. When the race was run back in Louisville, it was 5:30 in the afternoon. But in England, it was 2:30 in the morning. Nonetheless, the English Derby party was a howling success, the Browns reported. "The English weren't sure what they were celebrating, but they had a lot of fun," Charlie told me.
A significant factor in their Derby parties, the Browns said, is their mint julep. They grow their own mint and make their own sweet syrup of mint and sugar. They crush the ice, and they serve the julep in commemorative glasses emblazoned with the names of previous winners of the Derby.
During a recent telephone conversation, Charlie used one of the glasses as a reference tool while recounting the couple's history.
Charlie, who is a native of Cleveland, met Joan, a native of the Louisville area, in 1982, the year Gato Del Sol won the Derby. They got married in 1983, the year Sunny's Halo won.
They lived in Lexington, Ky., for several years, then moved to Severna Park in 1988, the year Winning Colors won. And in 1996, when Grindstone won, they moved to Federal Hill.
Their julep recipe comes from John Y. Brown. Depending on who you talk to in Kentucky, "John Y" is a man of note because he founded Kentucky Fried Chicken, or because he married former Miss America Phyllis George, or because he was elected governor of the state.
Being governor is what got John Y's julep recipe into a Bon Appetit magazine article, which is where the Browns (no relation) found it.
It is straightforward. Sugar and water are boiled, then the mint is added and the mixture is simmered. The syrup is cooled, strained and put in glasses, which are filled first with crushed ice, then bourbon.
Part of the ritual of their Derby parties, Joan said, is singing "My Old Kentucky HOME?" as horses parade to the post. Newcomers are often reluctant to sing, she said. But usually after sipping a few juleps, folks are not only singing, they are calling each other "colonel."
The John Y. Julep
4 cups water
2 1/2 cups sugar
1 bunch fresh mint plus fresh mint sprigs for garnish
3 cups bourbon
In a medium saucepan, bring water and sugar to a boil, stirring occasionally to dissolve sugar. Simmer 5 minutes. Add 1 bunch of mint and simmer for 10 minutes. Transfer mixture to a bowl, cover and refrigerate overnight.
Strain syrup. Fill julep cup or glass with crushed ice, add 2 tablespoons syrup and 1/4 cup bourbon to each. Garnish with fresh mint sprigs.