The Derby Cocktail

The first weekend in May is almost here and you know what that means, it’s time for the “Run for the Roses”, “The Fastest 2 Minutes in Sports”, the Kentucky Derby. Churchhill Downs will be buzzing this weekend with one of the strongest fields of horses in years.

Nothing says Kentucky Derby like a mint julep, except maybe big hats. Mint Juleps are refreshing and one of my favorite summer cocktails. But if I’m not in the mood for a mint julep, I’m going to need another cocktail to celebrate this weekend.

Enter the Derby cocktail.

The History

Unfortunately there are at least four variations to the derby cocktail, 2 with a base spirit of bourbon, 1 with gin, and 1 with brandy. The brown derby cocktail also has bourbon as its base spirit. Four different cocktails under one name? This drives the anal retentive part of me crazy. I spend a lot of time obsessing over the “real” version of each cocktail I learn, along with who created it and when it was created.

For the purpose of this blog I’m only going to talk about the two bourbon cocktails. One is from Trader Vic’s Bartender’s Guide (1972) and the other from Robert Hess. As a side note, the gin and brandy versions are also from Trader Vic’s cocktail book.

The Recipe

Trader Vic’s Derby Cocktail

  • 1 ounce bourbon
  • ½ ounce sweet vermouth
  • ½ ounce orange curacao
  • ¾ ounce lime juice

Add all the ingredients into a cocktail shaker and shake with ice. Strain ingredients into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a lime wedge or mint leaf.

Robert Hess’ Derby Cocktail

  • 2 ounces bourbon
  • ¼ ounce benedictine
  • 1 dash Angostura Bitters

Add all the ingredients into a mixing glass and stir with ice. Strain into a cocktail glass and garnish with a lemon twist (it should look better than my broken, un-spiraled twist pictured above).

Both cocktails are quite different. Trader Vic’s version is a take on a sour and Hess’ is in the style of a Manhattan. You can’t go wrong in choosing one for the race this weekend. Just remember when betting on a 20 horse field, you have 19 chances to be wrong.


If you need somewhere to watch the race this weekend, join the Seattle Whiskey Collective at Barrel Thief in Fremont. We'll be drinking lots of Woodford Reserve mint juleps and there will be prizes. More details can be found here