Thai Basil Julep

The 147th running of the Kentucky Derby is mere days away, and after the big deal I made about it last year, I had to issue at least a couple of recipes to keep the momentum of this spring occasion. I’m starting this year with the most obvious offering, a cocktail.

I had hoped that the Derby might be an inaugural outing for my husband, Les, and me—an event that could finally find us in the personal company of friends, without masks or restrictions. Alas, I am only halfway vaccinated, with my second COVID jab scheduled for tomorrow (fingers crossed!), so there won’t be time before Saturday for antibodies to take hold just yet. Nevertheless, we will celebrate, probably with a batch of the Kentucky Hot Brown Dip I created last year, or perhaps the Hearts of Palm Citrus Ceviche, maybe finishing with my Southern Belle Lemon Bars, and most certainly, with a cocktail and a fancy hat.

If you missed the special drinks I whizzed up last year, either for the “preview party,” because the Derby was postponed by COVID, or the actual run for the roses, which happened in September, you’ll want to circle back to check out those fun libations.

Bourbon is a staple on Derby day, being born in Kentucky and all, and in my quest to make good use of all the fresh herbs I am constantly plucking from our countertop Aerogarden, I have come up with a global spin on the drink that is signature to Kentucky Derby—the mint julep. Though I do have some variety of mint (spearmint, maybe?) growing at a very slow pace, I am literally overwhelmed with another herb, Thai basil, and I thought, “why not?” Thai basil is part of the mint family, so it seemed like it might work. It’s decidedly not the same flavor as the Genovese basil that would be on your caprese salad or in your pesto. It is used widely in Thai and Vietnamese food, with subtle notes of basil, of course, but there is a distinct difference that took some time for my taste buds to identify. It’s anise, the same general flavor of fennel or licorice, which is not unlike Peychaud’s bitters, a classic item for any serious cocktail cart. I knew that the Thai basil flavor would work with the bourbon, and to play up the Asian spin, I added the slightest splash of lemongrass-mint white balsamic vinegar, which I picked up in a specialty shop. Strange, you say, to add vinegar? White balsamic is no more tart than a squeeze of citrus (it’s actually sweeter), and the lemongrass is a refreshing complement to the drink.

Turns out, this was a very good call! Paired with the sweetness of the bourbon, this anise-scented herb is a winner. Rather than muddle the Thai basil in the cocktail glass (oh, I can’t stand little bits of things floating in my drink), I have infused a simple syrup with a fat handful of Thai basil, so it is technically a “smash,” rather than a julep. Either way, a half-ounce of this fragrant, slightly exotic syrup flavors a shot of bourbon quite nicely. Mix it up in a cocktail shaker with a splash of the lemongrass-mint white balsamic, strain it over crushed ice, and you are ready for the race. Garnish it with a fresh lemon twist, if you’d like, plus a sprig of the Thai basil, and enjoy!

Ingredients

2 oz. bourbon (I used Elijah Craig Small Batch)

0.5 oz. (1 Tbsp.) Thai basil simple syrup (recipe below)

1 bar spoon (about 1/2 tsp.) lemongrass-mint white balsamic vinegar*

Lemon twist and fresh Thai basil leaves to garnish

Any smooth bourbon is good here, plus the simple syrup, lemongrass-mint white balsamic and garnishes.

*Notes

The lemongrass-mint white balsamic is a specialty ingredient I purchased at a boutique olive oil and balsamic vinegar shop. These stores have popped up everywhere in recent years, and I love being creative with their products. I cannot name a brand because the shops are franchised with various names. But if the shop owner confirms their supplier is “Veronica Foods,” then it is the right stuff! If you can’t find it, leave it out and go for the twist of lemon. Perhaps substitute with a couple drops of bitters. It’s Derby time, so bourbon is the star anyway. 🙂

Instructions

Combine bourbon, syrup and white balsamic in a cocktail mixing glass or shaker. Add about a cup of ice and stir or shake until outside of the container is uncomfortably cold, about 20 seconds.

Strain over crushed ice into a cocktail or julep glass. Garnish with lemon twist or a fresh sprig of Thai basil.

With or without a fancy hat or a horse race, this is a refreshing spring cocktail!

Thai basil simple syrup

1/2 cup filtered water

1/2 cup organic cane sugar

1 handful Thai basil leaves, cleaned and trimmed of heavy stems

The leaves have a warm, aromatic quality that is different from Italian basil varieties. Allow them to steep in the simple syrup until it is cooled, then strain out the leaves and store in the refrigerator.

Combine water and sugar in a small saucepan and bring to slight boil. Remove from heat, stir in Thai basil leaves and steep until cool. Strain out the leaves. Transfer the syrup to an airtight jar, and store it in the refrigerator for up to one month.

This drink is so refreshing, and it is making good use of all my Thai basil. Cheers from my backyard!


Run for the Roses 2.0

For so many reasons, the arrival of September feels bittersweet this year. This weekend marks the U.S. observance of Labor Day, and although some are whooping “hooray” for a three-day weekend, my heart is heavy for others who are in deep despair for not having employment or for the serious health risks some people face daily as essential workers.

School is back in session, but in a way that is inconvenient at best and terrifying at worst. And while some parents are relieved for a return to normalcy in their schedules, others are stretched beyond reasonable limits—juggling remote learning alongside their own adult life responsibilities.

The pandemic has nudged all of us toward more creative avenues to community and friendship, and this blog has been a saving grace for me in that regard. Thank you for inspiring me and indulging me, as I share the adventures of my hopelessly cluttered kitchen. And though I know the impending change of season will ultimately force us back inside, stripping us of the already-limited social experience of meeting friends for patio dinners and happy hours, I find myself comforted by the promise of long-simmering soups and oven-roasted meats and casseroles. You will be hearing plenty from me in the months to come.

Oddly, summer is ending the same as it began for horse-racing fans. The Kentucky Derby, rescheduled from the first Saturday in May, will be held today—without live spectators. At least this time, there will be horses! The pomp will begin at 2:30 pm ET at Churchill Downs, and by post time at 6:50, you can bet I will have one of these two cocktails in my hand.

I knew back in May, when I posted about The Greatest Two Minutes in Sports, that I would revisit the occasion with a second round of drinks and snacks. Then, I highlighted foods that sang of spring—bright, fresh flavors of citrus and mint. And, of course, I took creative license with a couple of twists on the traditional Derby dish, the Kentucky Hot Brown. If you are new to my blog (welcome!) and missed those treats, you can find links to all of them on the Kentucky Derby Preview Party page.

For this 2.0 event, I have dialed it back to present a simpler offering—two Derby-inspired cocktails and my own twist on southern classic cheese straws that I’m calling Kentucky Bourbon Pecan & Cheese Biscuits. They are buttery and crisp, with two kinds of cheese and flecks of fresh rosemary, crowned with a bourbon-bathed toasted pecan. Despite the flavor complexities and my over-the-top description, these were easy to make from simple ingredients and just a few special touches.

My Smoky Rosemary Old Fashioned is understated, served over a giant ice cube, and in place of the mint that accents a julep, this sophisticated cocktail is highlighted with rosemary and a slight peppery smokiness, delivered by a simple syrup. The combination of flavors smells and tastes like autumn.

The gin drink, on the other hand, is a fancy-schmancy, decidedly “girly” libation—made with Hendrick’s Midsummer Solstice and glammed up with rose syrup and a rose sugar rim, the same way a Kentucky Derby lady would be decked out in a fancy hat and pink lipstick. The Midsummer Solstice carries forth the usual essence of cucumber and rose, as classic Hendrick’s is distilled with both. But other botanicals are clearly in full bloom in this small batch version, and the deep pink color is drawn from the leaves of rose’s cousin, the hibiscus. During my (ahem) research and development, also known as “knocking back a bunch of gin drinks,” I tried many things to elicit the true rose color I desired. A quick infusion with a hibiscus tea bag not only delivered on the color, but also contributes a bright, slightly tart note that is truly special. I’m excited to share this with you!

Now, before I give you the recipes and a play-by-play on making these drinks, I want to let you know that I am sometimes astounded by the information I find during my culinary research. I had already laid out my plan for these drinks when I sat down to name them, and it was only at the time of writing this post that I learned something so cool, I have to share it with you.

When we think of a julep, we automatically get a mental image of mint sprigs spilling out the top of a frosty silver mug—because julep implies “mint,” right? But today I learned the origin of the word “julep, and it is derived from a Persian word that means (wait for it)—“rosewater.” As my darling husband often reminds me, there are no coincidences. 🙂

Enjoy!


Subtle hints of smoke and rosemary blend with Four Roses small batch bourbon to send summer off in style.

Smoky Rosemary Old Fashioned

2 oz. Four Roses Small Batch bourbon

0.5 oz. rosemary-smoked pepper syrup (see below)

2 drops orange bitters

Orange peel for garnish (optional)

Combine bourbon, syrup and bitters in a cocktail mixing glass. Add ice and stir vigorously for 20 seconds, then strain over a large ice cube in a double rocks glass. Garnish with orange peel twist, if desired.

Rosemary-Smoked Pepper Syrup

Combine 1/2 cup filtered water and 1/2 cup cane sugar in a saucepan, and place over medium heat just long enough to dissolve the sugar and come to a very slight boil. Turn off heat. Add a small handful of fresh rosemary leaves (rinsed clean) and 1 teaspoon of cracked oak-smoked peppercorns. These are made by McCormick spice company, and available in the spice section of well-stocked supermarkets. Allow the mixture to steep until completely cooled. Pour syrup through a fine mesh strainer into a jar and refrigerate for up to one month.

The rose sugar rim ignites your senses the moment you raise the glass for a sip!

Midsummer Run for the Roses

2 oz. Hendrick’s Midsummer Solstice gin (or classic Hendrick’s)

0.5 oz. rose simple syrup* (see notes)

1 fresh lime, cut into quarters

Rose petal sugar* (for rim garnish; see notes)

1 hibiscus tea bag*

20 minutes ahead, sprinkle rose sugar onto a small plate or paper towel. Rub a wedge of lime around the rim of a cocktail glass, and then gently roll the outer edge of the rim in the sugar until the glass is coated all the way around. Place the glass in the refrigerator to chill.

Combine gin and hibiscus tea bag in cocktail shaker and rest for two minutes—only long enough for the hibiscus to stain the gin with its lovely hue. To see the difference, move the slider on the images here:

Remove the tea bag. Add the rose syrup and the juice of the lime wedge. Remove tea bag, add ice and shake vigorously for 20 seconds, until outside of shaker is frosty. Strain into the rose sugar-rimmed glass.

*Notes

Flowers, flowers and more flowers!

I found the rose syrup, which has a delicate and sweet flavor, in the cocktail mixers section at Total Wine and have seen similar products online. The rose petal sugar is available from the Spice & Tea Exchange, either online or at one of their retail locations. The hibiscus tea is made from only dried hibiscus leaves, and it provides the deepest pink color I could have hoped for, plus a tangy tropical note that sent this lovely cocktail straight over the top.


Kentucky Derby Sips

Kentucky Love Child

Like a cross between a Moscow mule and a mojito, but made with real Kentucky bourbon.

1.5 oz. Kentucky bourbon
0.5 oz mint simple syrup (recipe below)
Juice of half a lime
Reed’s extra spicy ginger beer

Combine bourbon, syrup and lime in a cocktail shaker. Add ice and shake like crazy for 20 seconds. Strain into a “mule” mug half filled with crushed ice. Top with ginger beer and garnish with fresh lime.

Sassy Comeback

A Southern spin on NYC’s “witty comeback”—and doesn’t it sound like a champion?

1.5 oz. Bulleit rye (bourbon works, too)
0.5 oz. Aperol (see notes)
0.75 oz. lemon ginger simple syrup (recipe below)
Seltzer or sparkling water (optional)

Combine rye, Aperol and syrup in a cocktail shaker. Add ice cubes and shake vigorously for 20 seconds. Strain into a chilled “Nick and Nora” glass (or small champagne glass). Enjoy as is, or top with seltzer. Garnish with a twist of thinly stripped lemon peel.

Sparkly Britches Lemonade

Because not everyone loves bourbon (yet).

1.5 oz. Hendrick’s gin
1 oz. cucumber simple syrup (recipe below)
Juice of half a lemon
Seltzer or sparkling water (optional)

Combine gin, syrup and lemon juice in a cocktail shaker. Add ice cubes and shake vigorously for 20 seconds, then strain into a chilled champagne flute. Enjoy as is, or make it really sparkle with a splash of seltzer.


What is Aperol?

It’s an Italian-made liqueur, considered to be an aperitif (fancy speak for “pre-dinner drink”), and it has a citrusy, herbal, slightly bitter flavor and a shockingly bright orange color. If you’ve ever tasted Campari (another Italian liqueur), it’s kind of similar, but less bitter and less potent. On the nose, Aperol is kind of a cross between grapefruit, rhubarb and orange lifesavers. In a cocktail, it brings a world of complexity, and is especially refreshing in the warm weather months.


What is a Nick and Nora glass?


It’s a smallish cocktail glass, sort of a cross between a champagne flute and a coupe martini glass. I found these little 4 ounce beauties online, and created the Sassy Comeback specifically for the glass! As I mentioned the glasses to various friends, it seemed nobody knew what they were, so I did a little research to find out why the glass is so named. I like this explanation best:

“It’s named for the boozy, quick-talking couple in Dashiel Hamett’s 1934 novel The Thin Man. They’re the couple we all want to be, always dressed for a night out, always with a quip at the ready, and always—always—with a drink in hand. Their namesake glass appropriately honors their art deco–era swag.”

Bon Appetit

The novel eventually became a series of films, starring William Powell and Myrna Loy, which remained popular well into the 1940s. In this clip, you’ll see the same dainty glasses used for their martinis. At the end of the scene, “Nora” embodies the sassy comeback. She’s my kinda gal!


The Simple Syrups

Simple syrups are very easy to make. A regular simple syrup is equal parts sugar and water, simmered until sugar is dissolved, then cooled and chilled. Each of the syrups below has a flavor infusion, and they offer a unique “somethin’ special” to the above mentioned cocktails. Have fun!

Mint Syrup

Simmer 1 cup sugar and 1 cup filtered water, stirring frequently, until sugar is dissolved and mixture is warm enough to steam. Remove from heat and add a 1 oz. package of fresh organic mint leaves (wash them first and trim the heavy stems), and allow the mint to steep in the syrup until completely cool. Strain out the mint (discard it) and pour the syrup into a covered jar. It will keep in the fridge for a couple of weeks.

Cucumber Syrup

Simmer 1 cup sugar and 1 cup filtered water, stirring frequently, until sugar is dissolved and mixture is warm enough to steam. Peel 4 Persian cucumbers, and cut them into slices. Remove syrup from the heat, add the cucumber pieces and steep until the mixture is cooled. Discard the cucumber pieces and strain syrup through a mesh strainer to remove any bits or seeds. Pour syrup into a covered jar. It will keep in the fridge for a couple of weeks.

Lemon-Ginger Syrup

Bring 1 cup water to a light boil, then turn off heat. Steep 4 lemon ginger* herbal tea bags in the hot water for about 2 minutes, then remove and squeeze the tea bags (discard them). Add 1 cup sugar to the hot tea blend, and stir until dissolved (return to heat a few minutes, if necessary). Cool completely, then pour into a covered jar. It will keep in the fridge a couple of weeks.

*For this syrup, I used Bigelow brand Lemon Ginger herbal tea. The label lists these ingredients; lemongrass, lemon peel, cinnamon, lemon verbena, rose hips, ginger and licorice root. This is a fantastic way to get a lot of complex flavor into a syrup, and these flavors play very nicely with the rye and Aperol in my Sassy Comeback!

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