For the longest time – up until this weekend, if I’m being truthful – I never understood the appeal of the Kentucky Derby. I always figured that there’s a miniscule sliver of society that has a genuine, year-round interest in professional thoroughbred racing, so I was flummoxed that the event got so much widespread hype and media attention. I’d never attended a big Kentucky Derby party, and I’m not even sure I ever watched the race on TV. As for the activities that accompany the race, well, I don’t need a special occasion to drink a Mint Julep, and no occasion has ever been special enough to make me think “Hey, I bet I’d look sharp in a seersucker suit.”
Well, consider me a convert.
This past weekend, Boston Cares held its fourth annual Kentucky Derby fundraiser at Central Wharf Co. in the Financial District. A nonprofit organization that mobilizes more than 25,000 volunteers every year, Boston Cares coordinates programs and volunteering opportunities in support of schools and other nonprofit agencies in Greater Boston. The previous year’s Derby event raised $15,000 for Boston Cares, and with a packed house of colorfully clad revelers, the 2015 installment was poised to blow right past that. In addition to watching the race, the $75 per head event featured raffle tickets, door prizes, and awards given for apparel-related categories such as best-dressed guest and best hat. Given the number of men and women donning race-day finery, I can scarcely imagine the difficulty of the selection process.
There were also plenty of fun ways to raise money. Guests had the opportunity to bid on dozens of items in a silent auction, with prizes including Red Sox tickets, trips to exotic locales, and this home bar from liquor sponsor Brown-Forman (and in the interest of full disclosure, I attended as their guest).
But what better way to support a good cause than by having a drink? You don’t need to be toasting a winning horse to enjoy a glass of champagne, and for $100, you’d get a chilled bucket of G.H. Mumm, the official champagne of the Kentucky Derby.
As a special treat, you could have the bottle “sabered,” a ceremonial technique that employs a large blade to not only pop the cork but also slice off the neck of the bottle in one clean, dramatic swoop. Below, you can see a bottle about to meet the saber. I’m told the bottle has to be extremely cold, otherwise the glass will shatter. (And on that note, there’s a reason you’re seeing the pre-sabering and not the post-sabering.)
Of course, no Kentucky Derby party would be complete without the event’s signature cocktail. The Mint Julep has been the official drink of the Derby since the 1930s, and this mix of bourbon, muddled mint leaves, sugar, and water is even older than the race. Woodford Reserve is the official bourbon of the Kentucky Derby, and at the race itself, they sell a $1,000 version that raises money for charity. The Boston Cares event featured a special Mint Julep for the comparative bargain price of $100. That’s still a lot to fork over for a drink, but with proceeds supporting the hard work of Boston Cares, it’s worth every penny.
The signature Julep for this event was made with Woodford Reserve Double Oaked bourbon, bourbon-infused vanilla sugar, Cave spring water, and fresh mint, served over crushed ice in a commemorative copper cup (at least I hope it was commemorative, because I took mine home). The Double Oaked bourbon, with notes of vanilla, caramel, and toasted oak, made this traditional reading of the classic recipe truly exceptional. Whether you’re fanning yourself in the sweltering Southern heat at Churchill Downs or hanging out in a bar on a temperate afternoon in Boston, the Mint Julep is as refreshing as it is timeless.
Even if you weren’t flush with Benjamins, you could still enjoy the Derby’s most iconic cocktail. A more reasonably priced Julep was made with Woodford Reserve bourbon, fresh mint, simple syrup, and soda, topped with powdered sugar.
Despite the reverence bestowed upon the Mint Julep on Derby day, I may have been more impressed with the Strawberry Blonde. This refreshing libation combined Old Forester bourbon with strawberries, basil leaves, simple syrup, lime juice, and ginger beer for a fruity, aromatic cocktail with an effervescent, spicy kick.
Of course, bourbon is just fine on its own. I’ve been big on Woodford Reserve since I visited their distillery last year. A smooth whiskey featuring complex notes of citrus, chocolate, and tobacco, it’s a versatile bourbon that requires no colorful ornaments or special occasions.
Such simplicity might be easy to overlook amid the pageantry and high fashion of a Kentucky Derby soirée. People attend these parties for all manner of reasons – to drink Mint Juleps, bet on horses, donate to charity, or simply watch the race with friends. But it’s clear that what revelers look forward to most is the chance to outfit themselves in vibrant attire that evokes the elaborate styles of a bygone era.
The women at the Boston Cares event were resplendent in their wide-brimmed, flower-adorned hats and radiant dresses, while men donned bright bowties, vests, and pants they ordinarily wouldn’t leave the house in. It’s an environment where elegance and irony walk hand in hand.
It was about 6:20 p.m. when the horses and their diminutive riders moved into position, and the anticipation swelled at Central Wharf. Even though I had no vested interest in the Run for the Roses, I inevitably got caught up in the excitement as the crowd gathered around the bar’s TVs to watch the two-minute contest that had brought us all together. Before long, American Pharaoh crossed the finish line to a chorus of cheers and groans, and I found myself clinking glasses with complete strangers for no apparent reason.
While American Pharaoh took home the trophy (and a cool $1.24 million), Boston Cares was certainly the winner at Central Wharf. I don’t know what their final tally was, but given the high turnout, the feverish auction, and the number of Woodford Reserve cups I saw floating around, I’m sure that the causes supported by Boston Cares benefited greatly from the attendees’ generosity.
As for me, well…I get it now. After years of being mystified as to why so many people mustered such fierce enthusiasm for horses running in a circle, I can see it now in a fuller respect – the lavish attire, the good-natured wagers, the invitation to sip Kentucky bourbon on a spring afternoon. And such enthusiasm can be contagious. I don’t see myself investing in a checkered sport coat or a fedora next year, but I suppose a bowtie wouldn’t kill me.
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