I have a semi-scandalous confession: I don’t really like mint juleps. And I especially don’t like the drink they serve at Churchill Downs on Derby Day.

So I went in search of better options and was delighted to find a new book coming out on May 3, just in time for the First Saturday in May.

“Bourbon is My Comfort Food” is from award-winning drink creator Heather Wibbels of Louisville, better known as the Cocktail Contessa online. It’s available from the University Press of Kentucky.

She’s also the former chairwoman of the board of Bourbon Women, a Kentucky-based group that has been gathering like-minded women together to talk about and enjoy their favorite drink for more than 10 years. It’s now national, with 14 chapters across the country.

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“Bourbon is My Comfort Food” from University Press of Kentucky is out May 3, 2022. Provided

How to make a good mint julep

So when I asked her to give me great drink options for the Derby she had plenty.

Some are in the book, some are from her web site. All are delicious and way better than the average mint julep.

Wibbels also has some tips for how to make one that’s above average and taste better, if one is not to your liking.

“I will argue that a well-made mint julep is a thing of beauty, with fresh mint, fresh ice, a great bourbon and simple syrup. It can be a revelation,” she said. The key: Serving it in a metal (silver if possible) cup. Really.

“I didn’t believe that for the longest time,” Wibbels said. But the frosty metal holds the cold and suppresses the bourbon just enough for the mint to blend with it. “The mint julep is an experience, not just a taste.”

Author Photo (1).jpg
Heather Wibbels, author of the new book “Bourbon is My Comfort Food,” is also chair of the board of Bourbon Women. She says there are lots of tasty alternative drinks to the mint julep but don’t write the classic Kentucky cocktail off just yet. Provided

But if you want to try something different but stay in the family, try a non-mint herb like sage, basil or lavender, which can make an amazing fruit julep, she said.

“One of the things I like to do is taste the bourbon neat to see what I want to pull our or to match,” she said. “Some have a lot of chocolate and cocoa. So if I use one like that, I might bring in chocolate bitters or a complementary flavor like nut bitters, then you have a kind of chocolate nut cocktail.”

You’d end up with a bourbon ball in a glass, which also would be Derby appropriate. Here’s a version called Dawn at the Downs, which is in her book.

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Looking for a breakfast julep to kick off Derby Day? Check out this one called Dawn at the Downs from the new book, “Bourbon is My Comfort Food” by Heather Wibbels. Provided

Dawn at the Downs

Make one drink. Convert ounces to cups to expand this recipe to serve 8.

Ingredients

  • ½ ounce coffee liqueur
  • ¼ ounce orange liqueur
  • ½ ounce maple syrup
  • 8 mint leaves
  • 2 ounces bourbon
  • Garnish: fresh mint sprig

Directions

  1. Rub 1 mint leaf on the inside and rim of a julep cup.
  2. Add liqueurs, maple syrup, and remaining mint leaves and muddle lightly.
  3. Add bourbon and give everything a quick swirl.
  4. Fill the cup with crushed ice and clear a small hole for the garnish and straw. Spank the mint sprig and add as garnish.

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Bourbon and champagne make a great mix, especially in these Bourbon Mimosas by Cocktail Contessa Heather Wibbels. Heather Wibbels

Wibbels likes to start Derby Day with a Bourbon Mimosa, which uses chocolate bitters and orange liqueur as well as champagne.

Bourbon Mimosas

Makes a batch of 8-10.

Ingredients

  • 1 1/2 cup bourbon
  • 1 cup orange liqueur
  • ⅓ cup water
  • 12 dashes orange bitters
  • 12 dashes chocolate bitters
  • Champagne or sparkling wine

Directions

  1. Combine the ingredients in an empty bourbon bottle and refrigerate for at least 4 hours or overnight.
  2. To serve, add 2 oz to a champagne flute and top with chilled sparkling wine. Garnish with an edible flower or small orange twist.
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You can make a batch of Lavender Lemon Bourbon Slushies ahead of time then pour them out when the guests arrive for your Derby party. Heather Wibbels

If you’d rather get off the julep track these altogether, try a pitcher of for your race-watching party: Lavender Lemon Bourbon Slushies.

Lavender Lemon Bourbon Slushies

Makes a batch of 15-20 bourbon slushies. Each serving is around 6-8 ounces.

Ingredients

  • 8 cups lemonade
  • 2 cups bourbon
  • 1 cup limoncello
  • 1 ¼ cup lavender simple syrup
  • 16 dashes lavender or hummingbird bitters
  • Optional (if you like your cocktails tart) ½ cup lemon juice

Directions

  1. Add all ingredients to a large pan, cover, and put in the freezer on a flat surface. Leave overnight.
  2. About 20 minutes before serving, set the pan on the counter to defrost slightly. Fluff/stir the frozen cocktail with a fork.
  3. Scoop into chilled glasses and serve with a straw and/or spoon.

Another great Derby Day breakfast cocktail: The Call to Post, which also features champagne. Both it and Bourbon Mimosas work well at the end of the day to celebrate a big win, too.

Call to Post

Make one drink.

Ingredients

  • 1 ounce bourbon
  • ½ ounce hibiscus simple syrup (recipe follows)
  • ¼ ounce Solerno blood orange liqueur
  • Champagne
  • Garnish: Destemmed cherry

Directions

  1. Heat water to a boil. Add dried hibiscus flowers. Step for 8 minutes. Strain. Add sugar and stir until dissolved. Store in a clean glass jar in the refrigerator for 2–4 weeks.
  2. In a mixing glass, combine bourbon, simple syrup, and liqueur. Add ice and stir until well chilled, about 20 seconds. Strain into a champagne flute and top with champagne. Garnish.

Hibiscus Simple Syrup

Ingredients

  • ½ tablespoon dried hibiscus flowers
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 cup sugar

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If you just have to have a julep on Kentucky Derby Day, get a little adventurous: Try The King’s Julep, named in this case for The King of Rock and Roll, Elvis Presley. It’s made with his favorite peanut butter and banana flavors. Provided

But if you just can’t get through the Kentucky Derby without a mint julep, try this adventurous one: The King’s Julep, named for Elvis Presley and showcasing his favorite flavors of peanut butter and banana.

The King’s Julep

Here, the King refers to the King of Rock and Roll: Elvis Presley. This julep is an homage to those peanut butter and banana sandwiches Elvis used to make. It’s a great julep for someone who is new to bourbon and wants to try a wildly creative take on a classic.

Ingredients

  • 1½ ounces bourbon
  • ¾ ounce peanut butter whiskey
  • ¾ ounce Giffard’s Banane du Brésil banana liqueur (substitute chocolate liqueur for Reese’s julep)
  • 2 dashes Bittercube cherry bark vanilla bitters
  • Garnish: peanut butter and banana skewer and fresh mint sprig

Directions

  1. In a mixing glass, add bourbon, peanut butter whiskey, banana liqueur, and bitters.
  2. Add ice. Stir until chilled, 10–15 seconds.
  3. Strain into a julep cup filled with crushed ice. Add a straw, mint sprig, and skewer of banana and peanut butter.

This story was originally published May 2, 2022 6:00 AM.

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Janet Patton covers restaurants, bars, food and bourbon for the Herald-Leader. She is an award-winning business reporter who also has covered agriculture, gambling, horses and hemp.
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