The Derby

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The Derby is a cocktail which has several variations, and here I’ll mention three cocktails each named Derby.  While I’ve only tried two of the variations (since I am lacking peach bitters for the third), I have to say that the recipe given by Ted Haigh is by far the best since it is the most balanced, and the most interesting of the two that I have had.  Even looking at the other one, I recognize it is going to be overly lacking in a balance.


The Triple Crown is the pinnacle of horse racing.  To win all three of the races, signifies the horses status as a legend, rooted both in archives and mythic remembrance.  While each of the races have their own style, the one with which we can link a cocktail is the Kentucky Derby.  Linked with the Mint Julep, the drink is synonymous not only with the race, but also with the sporting event as a whole, and the geographical idea known as the south.  This is similar with the Pimm’s Cup becoming the drink of Wimbleton.  With certain races, drinks were created and named to commemorate those races, and sometimes horses, and the Derby is one of those drinks (Haigh 110).  This helps to account for the wide variety of recipes that show up which are named all the Derby cocktail.

In the Savoy Cocktail Book, there is a Derby cocktail listed which is two mint leaves, two dashes peach bitters, and a glass of dry gin, shaken and strained into a cocktail glass (Craddock 58).  Unfortunately, I have no ability to taste this cocktail, since peach bitters are hard to come by, and as such, it will be one of the first things I’ll be trying that uses these obscure bitters.  This one, just by looking at it, seems unbalanced, since the gin will dominate the mint and any bitters found in the drink.  One would have to be exceptionally careful in the choice of gin.  The second variation which I found and tried, is the one listed in 1947 in Bartender’s Guide by Trader Vic, which was apparently one of three found in there (Haigh 110).  This version is utterly delicious: the whiskey blends well with the vermouth, and the orange lightly sweetens it while the lime juice balances everything else and gives it a nice sour note.  The last version I have found is one presented by Robert Hess, which consists of the herbal liqueur Benedictine, Angostura bitters, and bourbon (Hess).  This variety, while good, needs a premium bourbon, since the bourbon is the principle component of the cocktail, and one such as Bulleit or Buffalo Trace is not necessarily the best choice since it is rather heavy on the rye component.

Like a race, one of these cocktails far surpasses the other two: that being the one featuring lime.  For the version presented by Haigh, Bulleit bourbon works rather well.  The drink is not overpowering in any degree, and the vermouth is kept in check by the heavy spiciness and rye flavors from that specific bourbon.  The reason the cocktail is foamy, is because I shook it rather strongly in a cobbler shaker, and so small fine bubbles of air, combined with the citric acid of the juice, created the foamy and frothy appearance found in the cocktail.  The use of Cointreau was logical, since the drink doesn’t need to be tarnished with any flavors from brandy found in something such as Grand Marnier.  For vermouth, I’d recommend Punt e Mes for a unique flavor, or Cinzano sweet vermouth.  Carpano Antica would probably work well here, considering it has a strong and sweet flavor, although it may not have the bitter component which works well with the rye flavors in Bulleit that is found in Cinzano or Punt e Mes.

The Derby:

1 ounce Bourbon
1/2 ounce Cointreau
1/2 ounce sweet / red / Italian vermouth
3/4 ounce lime juice

Combine the ingredients in a cocktail shaker, and shake until well chilled.  Strain into a cocktail glass, and garnish with a mint leaf.

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CocktailDB: The Internet Cocktail Database. “Derby Cocktail variation.” CocktailDB.com. http://www.cocktaildb.com/recipe_detail?id=2972 (accessed April 10, 2010).

Craddock, Henry.  1999.  The Savoy Cocktail Book.  Originally published 1930.  London: Pavilion Books.

Haigh, Ted.  2009.  Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails: From the Alamagoozlum to the Zombie and Beyond.  Beverly, Massachusetts: Quarry Books.

Hess, Robert.  The Cocktail Spirit by Robert Hess.  “Derby.” Small Screen Network.  http://www.smallscreennetwork.com/video/257/ (accessed April 10, 2010).