You guys know Meredith Smith, right? The fried chicken chick? She's from Kentucky. I met her after she moved north to undergo a protracted and dangerous regimen of book-learnin' and shoe-wearin', but she retains about as much Kentuckianity as seems advisable in one small package.
I love bourbon and horse gambling and funny talk, so I figure Kentucky must be the place for me, but I've never actually been; Meredith goes back every 6 weeks for another cousin's wedding, but apparently her "+1" needs to have a few zeros attached before she even considers letting me tag along to a family affair. But that's all right, because at least I made the cut for her Kentucky Derby party Saturday (though not before she quintuple-checked that I would be adequately chaperoned; yes, Emily the girlfriend/research assistant is fancy-hat shopping as I type).
I love going to the horse track. I used to live near Suffolk Downs in East Boston, and one of my favorite after-work activities was jogging the couple miles to the track, losing $12 on two bets and two wax-paper cups of Bud, then taking the subway home. The track is one of the few places in judgmental-as-heaven Boston where you needn't worry about making the wrong impression should you roll up to the bar panting and perspiring and rummaging through your sweatpockets for your soggy beer singles. I get the impression Churchill Downs is a different sort of operation, but that shouldn't affect my scuzzy track routine: Meredith's party is taking place 1,000 miles from Louisville, plus there's no way she'll let me sit on the furniture no matter how dry my pants are.
One thing that will be different is that I'll finally get to drink a real mint julep. Yup, I'm a bourbon-loving, track-going, Kentuckian-befriending booze columnist who's never had a proper mint julep. Fraud alert! Look, I'd be all for drinking mint and complication if someone else wanted to do the herb gathering and ice shaving, but no one in my life ever has. The people who make Early Times Kentucky Whisky make a premixed facsimile, though, and the people who market it sent me a bottle. Close enough?
Early Times Kentucky Whisky Mint Julep is the "official drink of the 137th Kentucky Derby," which would be impressive if I didn't think topping their bid by $1 could make Will's Old Crow, Lemon, and Seltzer the official drink of the 138th. Although then I'd have to commission a painting for the commemorative bottle, and I doubt I could match the Early Timers there. This is pretty packaging. But so what?
Good news: The gift is nearly as nice as the wrapping. This is my favorite premade cocktail or flavored liquor or whatever you want to call it. You know what I mean: It's better than Kid Rock's Cherry Jim Beam, for instance, and incomparably superior to any of canned, low-watt, ready-to-drink cocktails I've had recently. Of course, Early Times Mint Julep has an unfair advantage over the single-serve premixes because it's 60 proof. At that medium-high level of commitment, there's much less "natural flavoring" getting in the way of the good stuff.
The label recommends pouring your cheater's julep over crushed ice and garnishing with a mint sprig, but that seems like a bit much bother for a premixed drink. I tried it neat, over ice, and with soda water, and it was plenty fine every time.
The mint element is stronger than I'd like, since it comes across as just a little fake—more like a stick of chewing gum than a muddled mint leaf—and I'd rather get more of the uncut Early Times whisky character. And it's sweeter than it should be, too, but that actually works in its favor if you seltzer it down by a couple ounces and chug it like soda pop, which is what I'll do if I'm cut off from the real stuff before the race starts. Pounding booze might strike my refined Southern hostess as insufficiently genteel, but the Kentucky Derby's only two minutes long, and never let it be said that I nursed one drink through an entire sporting event.