When I mention Kentucky Derby and cocktails in the same sentence, there’s a very good chance that a mint julep pops into your mind— and for good reason. The refreshing bourbon and mint drink piled high with crushed ice is ubiquitous at Derby festivities everywhere, including Churchill Downs. But not everyone loves mint, and some of us like to change things up just for the sake of change.
I consider myself an explorer in the world of cocktails, and when I ran across this one in a little gift book, Tiny Bubbles, I bookmarked it for this year’s Derby. Author Kate Simon describes this drink as the one “for your bourbon-obsessed friend who thinks he doesn’t like bubbly cocktails,” and goes on to describe the drink as being like a “fizzy Old Fashioned.”
I can’t attest to the drink’s ability to win over a non-fizz drinker— my husband certainly would not be swayed, and most people don’t announce their dislike for something with a secret hope of being convinced otherwise— but I do think this cocktail has an elegance and flair about it that is quite nice, especially because it is made with easy-to-find ingredients. If you’re looking for a change, maybe this is the one.
This lovely libation is known as a Seelbach Cocktail, so named for the Seelbach Hotel in Louisville where it is said to have originated in the years before Prohibition. As with so many cocktail backstories, there have been a few objections to the declared history of the Seelbach, and even the bartender who supposedly revived it in the 1990s “from an old hotel menu” fessed up to having conjured the story for his own glory.
But I say, who cares? The drink is fun without being too fussy, and a little change of pace is a good thing once in a while, even for an event as steeped in tradition as the Kentucky Derby. I don’t mind that the backstory is pure fiction, as long as it tastes good.
Bourbon (I used Elijah Craig Small Batch) is paired with Cointreau, an orange liqueur that mimics the expressed orange in a typical Old Fashioned. The cocktail is heavy on the bitters (two kinds, traditionally), which is a nice balance to the sweetness of the Cointreau, and a brut Champagne makes an entrance to provide the fizzy part. A cherry sits on the bottom of the glass as a sweet, last-sip reward, and an orange twist garnish gives it a fancy photo finish. I made my “twist” extra frilly, and as it sits perched on the rim of the chilled flute, it reminds me of the flashy fascinator hats that will be worn by the ladies at the Kentucky Derby.
Whenever I’m making cocktails, I like to get my ducks in a row— or horses, as the case may be for this weekend’s event. There’s no joy in realizing after you’ve started mixing that you forgot to wash the orange, for example, that will be used for garnish. And hopefully you’re doing that. Don’t ever cut up your fruit straight from the grocery store, as any variety of junk and pesticides will have taken up residence in the peel. Line up your tools and ingredients, and ice down the champagne flute so your drink stays chilly after it’s poured.
As many of my blog followers know, I have trouble sticking to the rules and rarely make a recipe exactly as written, so I’ll explain my “swaps” from the original Seelbach recipe, beginning with the mixing vessel. The Tiny Bubbles recipe suggests using a shaker, but I tried it and had trouble straining it from the shaker top neatly into the small opening of my flute glass. The rule of thumb in mixology is to use a shaker if you are combining ingredients with widely different viscosity— the thickness or simple syrup and watery nature of citrus juices will blend with alcohol better in a shaker. But this drink is all alcohol, so a mixing glass is my choice for easier dispensing. Use what works for you.
As for the bitters, the original recipe calls for both Angostura and Peychaud’s bitters, the latter of which has a lovely pink color but a strong anise flavor. I tried it that way, but didn’t love it. The combination doesn’t fit my perception of Kentucky Derby elegance, and I’ve been looking for a way to use these Hummingbird bitters, which combine rose and citrus essences. The Derby is literally the “Run for the Roses,” and I liked that tie-in for this frilly-meets-fizzy drink. It worked beautifully! If the Hummingbird bitters are not an option for you (I found them online but it’s a bit late to order them for the Derby), I personally think orange bitters would be a better fit than the Angostura-Peychaud’s combination. Experiment to find what tickles your fancy.
To get started on my cocktail, I made my orange peel garnish first by stripping off only the bright orange part of the fruit, leaving the bitter white pith behind. Use a sharp paring knife to trim it into clean lines, and make cuts as follows— a long, thin cut in the center of one end (this is where you’ll attach it to the rim of your glass), and several lengthy cuts on the other end, almost like fringe or a feather.
Wrap the orange peel snugly around a chopstick or wooden spoon handle and hold it for several seconds to coax it into shape. When it seems to be holding its own, begin making your cocktail.
Combine the bourbon, cointreau and bitters in an ice-filled cocktail mixing glass, and stir the drink for about 20 seconds to chill it down. If you’re using a shaker, have at it for about the same amount of time, until the shaker becomes uncomfortably cold.
Add a Luxardo cherry to the bottom of the flute, and don’t worry at all if a bit of the luscious syrup goes with it. Pour in about half of the specified champagne (this helps ensure the drink is well-mixed), then strain the cocktail over the glass and top it off with the rest of the bubbly. Perch your frou-frou orange garnish on the edge of a glass like a fascinator, and enjoy in moderation. Fair warning: the effervescence in this drink will go straight to your head, so it might be a good starter before you switch to something more mainstream. A mint julep, perhaps? 🙂
With the flavors of an Old Fashioned, and the fizziness of Champagne, this Louisville-based cocktail will be a lovely option for a Kentucky Derby watch party.
- 1 oz. bourbon (I used Elijah Craig Small Batch; it’s smooth and 94 proof)
- 1/2 oz. Cointreau (or other orange liqueur)
- About 7 drops Hummingbird bitters (available online, or substitute orange and/or Angostura)
- 3 oz. brut Champagne or other sparkling wine, chilled
- Ice for shaking/stirring and chilling glass
- Good quality cocktail cherry, such as Luxardo
- Strip of orange peel for garnish
- Fill champagne flute (or white wine glass) with ice to chill it.
- Fill a shaker or mixing glass halfway with ice. Add bourbon, Cointreau and bitters and stir or shake for about 20 seconds.
- Empty ice from flute and place cocktail cherry in the bottom.
- Pour about 2 oz. of the Champagne into the glass. Strain the cocktail into the glass and top it off with remaining Champagne.
- Garnish with orange twist.