Get all of Tim Newcomb’s columns as soon as they’re published. Download the new Sports Illustrated app (iOS or Android) and personalize your experience by following your favorite teams and SI writers.
How do you enhance the sporting world’s most iconic mixed drink? Mix more.
Churchill Downs and concessionaire Levy Restaurants brought on celebrity mixologist Charles Joly to give the Kentucky Derby added variety in the cocktail world, allowing Joly the space to create three new drinks for Derby day.
“I look at it as I’ve got three cocktails to get a point across and make a complete menu,” Joly tells SI.com. “I want diversity in flavor profiles so I can appeal to whoever might step up to the bar.”
Joly, who has mixed drinks for the Grammy Awards and the Oscars, says the Kentucky Derby is unlike any other event. “It definitely has its own vibe,” he says. “The damn thing lasts for four days.”
But you can’t talk Kentucky Derby cocktails without alluding to the Mint Julep. So Joly didn’t try to make people forget about it, he wanted to give the famed drink a fresh spin. “A proper Mint Julep is a thing of beauty,” he says. “The Prospector’s Julep was a direct descendent paying homage to that cocktail. It is different enough to make it interesting and have a distinctive flavor profile, but keeping in the same vein, another branch on the family tree.”
A little less spirit-forward than a classic mint julep, the Prospector’s brings on Woodford Reserve, Koval ginger liqueur, lemon juice, honey syrup and mint. “The Prospector’s Julep is a little bit more complex, but using the bones of the mint julep and elaborating,” he says.
Beyond the julep comes two more signature cocktails from Joly, the Trifecta—a more straightforward drink to appeal to the fans of the Manhattan and Old Fashioned—and then a Valentino’s Wager to hit the opposite end of the spectrum with a lighter mix.
The Trifecta, with its double horse racing and cocktail meaning, allowed Joly to get a trifecta of flavors with beer, coffee and whiskey all mixed together. And he tossed a bit of cigar smoke in the mix for “great presentation and nice aromatic component.”
The Trifecta’s ingredients of Woodford Reserve, Cherry Heering, Founder’s Breakfast Stout, Fee aromatic, coffee bitters and cedar-cigar smoke gives Joly something far different than the julep.
Sean Parisi, Levy’s beverage director, says bringing in celebrity mixologists represents the next wave of event hospitality the way celebrity chefs were over a decade ago. “We believe consumer tastes have evolved so they want to know who is making the drink and what ingredients are involved,” he says. “It adds high-end touches.”
A sporting event at the scale of the Kentucky Derby adds some interesting nuances Joly had to learn, requiring Levy to work with him to tweak recipes to allow speed of service and ensure that the drinks have the proper mix of acidity and sweetness to make them “enticing and approachable” for the tens of thousands of prospective drinkers.
By using Woodford Reserve bourbon as the “backbone of the signature drinks,” Parisi says Joly was able to create a mix of flavors that complimented and enhanced the julep. And by having such a well-known drink already associated with the event, “in some ways it provides a great framework and brings out the creativity to stand against those iconic drinks.”
To round out the cocktail menu, which will be served at bars in the premium seating areas, Joly mixed together Woodford Reserve, Punt e Mes sweet vermouth, lemon juice, Sicilian blood orange syrup and Pellegrino blood orange soda for a “very fancy whiskey sour” for the Valentino’s Wager.
The name of the third drink reminds Joly of a whimsical horse name. “The names are sometimes the best part, especially on derby day,” he says. “You can have a julep and pick a horse based off the name. Everyone can do it, go place a $2 bet and not be too serious. It is a great event.”
An event with an ever-growing mix of cocktails.
Tim Newcomb covers sports aesthetics—stadiums to sneakers—and training for Sports Illustrated. Follow him on Twitter at @tdnewcomb.