You can start to see here a distinction that would ultimately become the yawning rift between the temperance movement and those who favored strong drink. But for our purposes, it demonstrates how America managed to democratize the otherwise aristocratic sport of horse racing. Of course, the people who owned and bred the horses were insanely wealthy, but that didn’t prohibit anyone with what he considered a bit of inside information from placing a small bet that could really pay off. This popular appeal is what drew thousands of people to the tracks for races like the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes – the three races that today make up the Triple Crown.
Although it was pre-dated by the Belmont Stakes by 8 years and the Preakness by 2 years, the Kentucky Derby has come to dominate the American consciousness when it comes to horse racing – and of course, mint juleps. Founded by Merriweather Lewis Clark Jr. – yeah I’m not making that up…it’s explorer William Clark’s grandson…the Kentucky Derby ran its first race in 1875, which was a time in American history when cocktails were all the rage.
It took place at Churchill Downs – the racetrack of the Louisville Jockey Club which was organized by Clark a few years earlier – and continues to be held in the same location to this day. And if you were a Kentuckian in 1875, you’d probably be extremely bullish on your local whiskey that had been receiving a lot of attention due to the complete absence of Brandy imports caused by the phyloxera plague that had ravaged France in the two preceding decades.
You knew I was gonna bring this back to Phyloxera. It always. Comes. Back. To Phyloxera.
Anyway, legend has it that mint was planted at Churchill Downs when it was first built specifically so that Juleps could be served at races, so at least in some sense, the drink was appreciated and planned for by the folks who organized the event. It makes sense, then, that the mint julep would go on to become the official drink of the Kentucky Derby, with commemorative silver julep cups being designed and sold each year since 1939.
These silver cups are an important reference to the aristocratic lineage of horse racing, but they also serve an interesting ergonomic purpose that we’ll discuss in just a few moments.
Before we do that, though, I can’t let the other two legs of the triple crown go unappreciated for the mixological masterpieces that they have selected as their official drinks. I hope you can sense the sarcasm in my voice.
Let’s start with the least egregious of the two (I THINK it’s the least egregious…), which is the Black Eyed Susan, official cocktail of the Preakness, held at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, MD.
The good thing about the Black Eyed Susan is that I can’t find an official recipe for it. And normally that would be a bad thing, but most recipes make this look like a confusing, hamfisted riff on a Long Island Iced Tea. Here’s the recipe for the 2019 version of the drink (yeah, that’s right, it’s so bad they have to change it every year):
Shake all ingredients over ice and strain into a glass over crushed ice. Garnish with an orange and cherry.
I assume that means each drink comes with a whole orange that you can peel and eat, and a fresh cherry to wash it down.
You have to guess, though, that at some point there was a modicum of logic that went into the making of this cocktail. It’s named after the blanket of black eyed susans that gets draped over the horse that wins the race, so at least the concept hits the mark.
According to the Baltimore Sun:
The drink was first served at the 1973 Preakness by the Harry M. Stevens Co., the longtime caterers at Pimlico Race Course. It’s said the team worked hard to make the drink have a pale yellow color, something that doesn’t remain today.
Ah, yes – a pale yellow color – the most elusive of ALL the colors in cocktail world to achieve. We certainly wouldn’t want it to be a dark golden color like a real Black Eyed Susan. No, that would be too “on the nose.”
Listen, at least we can speculate that there’s some lost recipe for the Black Eyed Susan that’s not as terrible as the one I just read for you. But that, I think, is about the only good thing we can say about the Black Eyed Susan cocktail. Caveat Emptor.
Now, the Belmont Stakes’ original cocktail is so bad that nobody’s willing to say when it became the official cocktail. It, like the Black Eyed Susan, refers to the blanket of flowers draped over the winning horse…which, can we admit is a little much?…anyway, it’s called the White Carnation, and here’s the recipe:
2 oz vodka (Starting off strong)
½ ounce peach schnapps (sounds like the ‘70s)
two ounces orange juice (definitely the ‘70s)
two ounces soda water (or enough to fill the glass)
splash of cream (aaarrgh! God! Why?!)
orange wheel (garnish)
Now, I don’t know why this, to me, sounds worse than the Black Eyed Susan, but there’s something about making a perfectly objectionable sweet vodka drink and then saying: you know what this needs? Heavy Cream…that really triggers me.
Right? Because you know somebody came up with the bones of this drink, and then got feedback from the board (I’m assuming there’s a board somewhere) saying it has to be white because of the white carnations. And someone’s response to that feedback was to just dump some heavy cream on top and call it a day. And then people had to drink it! People. Had. To DRINK it. For like, years! Probably decades! That’s both horrifying and amazing.
Anyway, in 1997, the official drink was changed to the Belmont Breeze, which was developed by New York Bartender and “King Cocktail” himself, Dale DeGroff.
The recipe for this cocktail has gestures to both the Black Eyed Susan and the Mint Julep and is as follows:
1½ ounces bourbon whiskey (or rye whiskey)
½ ounce sherry (medium dry)
½ ounce lemon juice (fresh)
½ ounce simple syrup
splash of orange juice
splash of cranberry juice
five mint leaves
mint sprig (garnish)
orange peel or slice (garnish)
When the New York Times reviewed both the outgoing and incoming official cocktails, they weren’t exactly complimentary of either, claiming that the Belmont Breeze was [quote] “a significant improvement over the nigh undrinkable White Carnation” despite the fact that it “tastes like a refined trashcan punch.”
Even Dale DeGroff doesn’t hit a homerun every time.
Finally in 2011, the official cocktail of the Belmont Stakes was changed to its current form, the Belmont Jewel – a cocktail that actually makes a little bit of sense.
The recipe for the Belmont Jewel is:
You shake these ingredients over ice, strain into a rocks glass over more ice, and garnish with a lemon wedge or cherry (garnish).
And now, as we turn our attention back to the Mint Julep, I’d like to take a moment of silence for the many years of painful toil that it took the fine people at the Belmont Stakes to realize that their official cocktail should be…a whiskey sour.