We are throwing a Kentucky Derby party. I know that the classic derby cocktail is the Mint Julep. However, I know some of our guests do not like bourbon. Do you have a suggestion for a Kentucky- or derby-themed cocktail that I could make with a different base liquor?
Any Kentucky colonel or other such Southern gentleman would cringe at this question (though, clearly, he’d be well-mannered enough to disguise his disgust.) Bourbon IS Kentucky, and the julep is definitely the beverage of choice to enjoy while watching the Kentucky Derby, or throwing a similar party. (Preferably consumed while you’re wearing either a white linen or seersucker suit, and escorting a woman in a fine derby hat.) Though Dr. Thompson would remind us that on a day as decadent and depraved as the Kentucky Derby, you can drink whatever you want, so long as the quantity is sufficient. Complicating all these matters is that through a sponsorship deal, the Kentucky Derby has adopted Early Times Kentucky Whiskey as its “official” bourbon a spirit that, truly, can’t call itself a bourbon, since it’s aged in used barrels (to be classified as bourbon, a whiskey needs to have aged in a new barrel.)
But you’re asking about cocktails appropriate as tribute for your derby party, and that’s maybe a different question.
First, I’d suggest you consider making your julep with something other than bourbon. Any brandy or aged mid-to-dark rum would do just as nicely, though the flavor would clearly be different. (There’s an argument that the first juleps were made with brandy, or maybe even genever, a piney Dutch version of gin.)
Second — and stick with me here for a minute — I’d suggest you veer from the bourbon and toward that other great Kentucky spirit, moonshine. Yeah, I know it sounds strange, but moonshine is basically white whiskey, and we’ve covered that ground before. Your local liquor store probably has some sort of harsh, unaged moonshine sold in mason jars that would make a great centerpiece and conversation starter for your next party, and if you use it like you’d use a tequila — either in that margarita recipe or in some other way — your bourbon-hating guests should be able to find something they like. (Which is more than they deserve, if you ask me.)