Derby Daze

Creative Takes on Churchill Downs’ Cocktails and Canapés

written by COLLEEN ANN MCNALLY | photography courtesy of ATLANTA STEEPLECHASE | PHOTOS BY SOTO; CDA DOWN HOME DERBY; FOUR ROSES BOURBON; TABLE & MAIN; BOURBON BAR & SOUTHERN ART

Kentucky’s famed twin spires may be more than 400 miles away, but when the first Saturday in May comes around the bend, the spirit of Churchill Downs Racetrack is alive and well across metro Atlanta. Some of us will even get an early start out of the gate thanks to the 52nd Running of the Atlanta Steeplechase, held April 22 at Kingston Downs near Rome, Georgia.

Atlanta Steeplechase, benefitting Bert’s Big Adventure

In other words, Northsiders don’t need to travel far to participate in the well-fashioned festivities, and the philanthropic-minded ones prove their attendees aren’t just horsing around. Held at Chastain Horse Park during the live broadcast on May 6, Derby Day is Atlanta’s biggest Kentucky Der – by-themed fundraising event and has been a Shepherd Center tradition since 1983. Their website estimates giving totals of $90,000 a year and, during its 34-year history, an incredible $4.5 million has directly benefitted patients by going exclusively to Shepherd Center’s Recreation Therapy program.  

At its heels and gaining ground is the Child Development Association’s (CDA) ninth annual Down Home Derby at Iron Horse in Milton, also held May 6. With tickets priced at $150 per person, the event supports the CDA’s mission to give families access to high-quality, affordable early education for children — and has sold out every year. This comes as no surprise, considering the mix of games including a wine pull and corn hole tournament along with live music, craft libations and gourmet dining.

Perhaps you’d rather turn what’s often called “the greatest two minutes in sports” into the greatest garden party your backyard has ever seen. Regardless of where you place your wager, I’d bet that what makes a celebration or a lucky hat stand out is a personal touch.

When it comes to adding flair to your Mint Julep or accompanying menu, we asked the folks from Four Roses Bourbon in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, as well as a few of our local favorites, to show us their takes on the classic cocktail — plus some Southern canapés to balance your imbibing.

Another great resource, the Kentucky Derby’s official website also offers plenty of history lessons (did you know it is the longest continually held sporting event in America?) and a planning guide to keep hosts covered like a wide-brimmed floppy. What you do with the winnings is up to you. May we suggest something philanthropic? After all, giving back never goes out of style.

FOUR ROSES FANFARE

When it comes to a lasting heritage, Four Roses Bourbon and the Kentucky Derby are neck and neck. In 1874, Colonel Meriwether Lewis Clark formed the Louisville Jockey Club and acquired land from his uncles John and Henry Churchill for a racetrack south of Louisville, Kentucky. It would be another decade before Four Roses Founder Paul Jones Jr. set up a thriving business there; however, he claims production and sales as early as the 1860s in Atlanta.

These were the days before air conditioning was commonplace, and the Mint Julep’s traditional pewter cup served more than an aesthetic purpose. “Pewter sweats on the outside, so it doesn’t water down the drink and keeps it nice and cold,” said Randall Roberts, president of Real Brands, Inc. and brand manager of Four Roses in Georgia and South Carolina. 

CDA Down Home Derby

“Yes, it is easy to improve a Mint Julep, but it’s really just a way to get the bartenders in Louisville to play with Four Roses every year,” Roberts added. And for good cause, too. The first place concoctions from last year’s Four Roses Charity Cocktail Challenge benefitting the Folded Flag Foundation included unique ingredients such as curaçao, Fernet Branca liqueur, Aztec chocolate bitters and cayenne powder.

If you’re not a fan of the conventional recipe, an easy tweak is to add fruit and a different herb.

A BLUE RIBBON BITE

Of course, everyone’s favorite derby food is the Hot Brown — an American hot sandwich born at the legendary Brown Hotel in Louisville. A bit more than a snack, this is traditionally an open-faced turkey sandwich topped with tomato and bacon, covered in Mornay sauce, then browned to perfection in the oven.

Created from Milton’s Cuisine & Cocktails’ recipe, my first bite of a Hot Brown was during the 2016 CDA Down Home Derby and I was smitten from the start. While I can’t stack it up to the original from firsthand experience, the Brown Hotel lists the original recipe on their website for inquiring minds who’d like to compare.

Meanwhile on Canton Street, Table & Main also takes the tradition up a notch. Chef Woolery “Woody” Back’s family celebrates the Kentucky Derby like a holiday and he didn’t hesitate to share his twist with turkey, tomato and bacon over a fried grits cake with a crawfish mornay. In honor of his late grandmother, who always made Benedictine and holiday ham sandwiches on white bread, he also shared her recipe for another familiar Kentucky sandwich.

“Benedictine spread came from a lady named Judy Benedict who wrote The Blue Ribbon Cookbook,” Back said. “It has become the spread of Louisville for what are their famous tea parties. While it’s typically paired with bacon, my grandmother loved a good brown sugary ham. Benedictine is basically cucumber and onion grated into cream cheese.” 

Last time I visited, Table & Main’s bar library included more than 50 bourbons, ryes and whiskeys, so I trust the good taste of General Manager Cindy Miller when it comes to a spin on the Mint Julep; one that has me looking forward to warmer months ahead.

Likewise, I asked Chef de Cuisine Tonya Morris at Southern Art and Bourbon Bar to chime in. Located inside the InterContinental Buckhead Atlanta, the dual concepts come from celebrity restaurateur and cookbook author, Executive Chef Art Smith. With more than 70 handpicked bourbons on their shelves, the Bourbon Bar is also the ideal place to sample history in a bottle and find the one that best fits your taste.

Some of the most enduring cocktails and dishes ever created were inspired in bars nestled in some of America’s most beautiful and historic hotels. Perhaps your next favorites will be inspired in your kitchen. 

Click on each image to view the recipe.