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We talked to a bourbon expert about beginner cocktails and the Kentucky Derby

Shutterstock The mint julep gets its flavor from a mint-infused simple syrup and mint leaf garnish. Make sure you use a good-quality bourbon.
Published May 2

The Kentucky Derby horse race takes place Saturday, and the classic Derby drink is Mint Juleps, heavy on the bourbon.

In keeping with the theme, I talked to Al Young, senior brand ambassador and brand historian for Four Roses Bourbon, and came up with a cocktail recipe fit for the occasion.

Young suggests something like a Manhattan as a good starting cocktail for a newer bourbon drinker. I played around with a Tom Collins-like drink using lemon juice and simple syrup, but swapped out the typical gin for bourbon. The result is the recipe below, an easy-drinking cocktail that should appeal to bourbon lovers and novices alike.

Here's what else Young had to say about the very American spirit.

What is a good introductory bourbon?

Something with a lower proof, like Four Roses Bourbon at 80 proof, will give them a chance to experience flavors and aromas ranging from caramel to vanilla.

What cocktail should a bourbon beginner should try at home?

A well-made cocktail makes all the difference, and the simpler the better for those getting introduced to the cocktail culture. I would suggest a Manhattan. Mix 3 parts bourbon with 1 part vermouth of your choosing. It can be either stirred or shaken then poured over ice or without. Add a favorite type of cherry, and there you have it.

What's the difference between bourbon and whiskey?

All bourbons are whiskies but not all whiskies are bourbons. Federal standards of identity were established many years ago to define bourbon whiskey as opposed to Scotch, Irish and Canadian whiskies. This resulted in making each category a product of their respective countries.

Of course, in the United States, we spell it whiskey while other countries use whisky. It further states that bourbon is a distinctive product of the United States and can only be made anywhere in this country to be authentic.

Why is there such a tradition of Mint Juleps/bourbon around the Kentucky Derby?

The mint julep can trace its heritage back to colonial Virginia, where it was usually enjoyed by the local gentry on special occasions including horse racing.

When the Kentucky Derby began in the late 1800s, it was fashionable to be Southern in outlook and that was when the mystic and association of the mint julep began with the "fastest two minutes in horse-racing". Since then, it has been a staple of that event and has been produced in many forms.

Why do you think bourbon has risen in popularity the past couple of years?

The younger drinking public has become better educated about this alcoholic beverage category through distillery-backed education programs and things like the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. They are more discriminating drinkers and recognize it as a truly American product. They want to know more and are willing to learn, and we are only too happy to help them.

BLUEBERRY BOURBON COCKTAIL

A handful of fresh blueberries

1/2 ounce lemon juice

1/2 ounce simple syrup

1 1/2 ounces bourbon

Ice

Club soda

Fresh mint or basil, for garnish, optional

Add handful of blueberries to a cocktail shaker. Using the handle end of a spatula or other cooking tool, crush the blueberries slightly to release the juices.

Add lemon juice and simple syrup to shaker and let sit for about a minute. Add bourbon, fill shaker with ice, then shake for about 30 seconds.

Fill a glass with ice. You can either strain the ingredients from the shaker into the glass, or simply pour the mixture into the glass. I didn't strain mine, to keep the crushed blueberries in the drink.

Top with a splash of club soda, then garnish with a couple sprigs of fresh herbs if you want.

Makes 1.

To make the simple syrup: Combine 1/3 cup granulated sugar and 1/3 cup water in a microwave-proof glass, and microwave for 30 seconds. Stir, then microwave for another 30 seconds. If sugar is not fully dissolved (the syrup should be clear), microwave for an additional 30 seconds. Pour into another bottle or container, do not cover, and refrigerate until cool. Use as directed. Store covered in the fridge for up to 2 weeks.

Source: Michelle Stark, Times food editor

Contact Michelle Stark at mstark@tampabay.com. Follow @mstark17.

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