With the Kentucky Derby racing into action May 7, now is an apt time to raise a glass to horse-racing and general spring refreshment with the iconic Derby drink, the mint julep. Chicago isn’t Louisville, but restaurants and bars know how to mix up a good julep. From refined classics to newfangled renditions, here’s where to get your Derby drinking on in Chicago:
Bavette’s Bar & Boeuf: While steakhouses are more known for their sterling red wine lists, Bavette’s is one spot full of surprises. The restaurant makes some of the best steakhouse cocktails, including a mint julep that skews traditional and exemplary. Evan Williams is muddled with fresh mint, Benedictine and housemade demerara syrup. It’s served over cobbled ice with a few drops of rum on top for richness and added aromatics.
FIG & OLIVE: It’s Louisville by way of the Riviera at FIG & OLIVE, where the classic cocktail adapts a nifty Mediterranean accent for the Fig & Walnut Julep. It’s made with Four Roses bourbon as a base, but that’s pretty much where the classic formula stop. From there, they add port, elderflower liqueur, muddled black mission figs, mint and fresh citrus. It’s even garnished with a shaved walnut-covered fresh fig.
Bar Toma: The biggest faux pas with many mint juleps is an excess of sweetness. Bar Toma knows a smart way to keep the sugar in check is with a bit of spice. Their aptly dubbed Spicy Derby cocktail contains Rebel Yell bourbon, muddled mint leaves, lime and jalapeño simple syrup. It’s also stirred with some sliced fresh jalapeños for added heat.
Sable Kitchen & Bar: Leave it to Sable Kitchen & Bar to innovate a timeworn classic. With bartender John Stanton at the helm, this River North bar is one of the most reliable spots for a contemporary cocktail, many of which borrow inspiration from legendary libations. Such is the case with Stanton’s Sun Blind Terrace, a julep-style drink perfect for spring sipping. It may look familiar, with its julep cup and crushed ice, but this is far from commonplace. Rather, Stanton opts for Kappa pisco, Lustau East India sherry, smoked pineapple juice, lemon, simple syrup and cherry bark vanilla bitters. It’s sweet, aromatic, smoky and quenching all at the same time.
Presidio: Blackberries are a welcome addition in Presidio’s homage to a mint julep. Served in a striking gold tin cup, the Bucktown bar makes their Gold Coast Cocktail with Whistlepig rye whiskey, berries and spearmint.
NAHA: With the look and feel of a classic mint julep, right down to the icy cold cup brimming with crushed ice, it’s easy to mistake the NAHA Mint Julep as standard. But along with Kentucky bourbon and fresh muddled mint, the restaurant incorporates some heady and seasonally appropriate accompaniments like amaro and rhubarb bitters.
Belly Up Smokehouse & Saloon: Mint Juleps go savory at the South Loop’s Belly Up Smokehouse & Saloon. After the traditional combination of bourbon, muddled mint, simple syrup and a splash of water over crushed ice, the drink gets served in a mason jar with a piece of candied bacon.
The Gage: For the Kentucky Derby this year, The Gage is partnering with Jim Beam for a special cocktail called Seabiscuit’s Revenge. Like the horse, this cocktail is full of surprises and far from the average julep, made with Maker’s Mark, blackberry cinnamon syrup, Decanter bitters, lemon and mint. It sports a nice rosy hue too, which is particularly intriguing.
The Harding Tavern: In Logan Square, The Harding Tavern adds a dash of tart to their Derby Day mint julep. The cranberry mint version contains Bulleit bourbon, Ancho Reyes, Demerara syrup, cranberry juice, lime juice, mint, club soda and grapefruit bitters.
Autre Monde Cafe & Spirits: At Autre Monde, the Kentucky classic adopts a bit of a Mediterranean accent in the hands of mixologist Becci Visconti West. Sure there’s bourbon mint simple syrup and muddled mint present and accounted for, but the amaro nonino is a nice Italian addition.
Elixir Andersonville: Fully embracing Southern culture for Derby drinking festivities is Elixir Andersonville. The restaurant has a special Derby-inspired cocktail called the Georgia Peach Julep lined up for May 7, made with Rare Tea Cellars peach rooibos-infused bourbon, Steen’s cane syrup, mint, and peaches.
The Bedford: Flavors of citrus and blackberry keep things bracingly fresh in the juleps at The Bedford. It’s aptly called The Bedford Blackberry Julep, packed with bourbon, mint, and fruit aplenty. The drink will be available during the restaurant’s Run for the Roses afterparty on May 7 from 5:30 p.m. until 7:00 p.m.
El Tapeo: In Oak Brook, Al Tapero is shaking up a couple fun variations on the Derby Day classic. Try the Garden Julep for something fresh and vivacious, made with an ice sphere infused with syrup, mint, and basil, poured with a mix of WhistlePig rye, honey simple syrup, and mint leaves. Then there’s the summery Apricot Mint Julep, which has bourbon, honey simple syrup, apricot liqueur, and fresh mint.
WhirlyBall: Between rounds of bowling, laser tag and WhirlyBall, you should make sure and fuel up on the Run for the Roses cocktail at this Bucktown entertainment Mecca. The Kentucky Derby-inspired cocktail contains Local Option’s Kentucky Common Sour, plus ginger and mint syrup, and fresh mint.