Derby Days - In a Moment
Getting in the Derby Day spirit? Ever wondered, what makes The Kentucky Derby so exciting? How about why Mint Juleps are a Derby Day Tradition? Or, what to offer a guest who thinks outside the Mint Julep? Donnie Clutterbuck has these answers and more.
We engage in rituals on a daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly basis, often without digging too deeply into what we’re doing or why we’re doing it. I’m not here to say we should think harder as I wouldn’t want to run the risk of ruining the fun, but I’d really love to point out some of the reasons we find this exciting– hopefully with the byproduct of making these times even more enjoyable and meaningful. This brings us to what I’d regard as the event with the highest pomp-to-duration ratio in history: The Derby.
Let’s just get this out of the way off the bat: the story regarding the origin of the Mint Julep is (to my knowledge) rather unimpressive. I am not a historian, but I like to reduce that which occurs to the most simply and reasonably explainable. But what do we know? What’s feasible? Let’s investigate.
The local whiskey of Kentucky is Bourbon. Lots and lots of corn down that a way, and if you’d planted corn and built a house to prove and be granted land ownership way back when you might have too much corn to eat. Corn can be fermented into a beer to be preserved, but it isn’t particularly delicious and is way easier to move when distilled into the spirit. This spirit can be a preservative, accelerant, spirit, fuel, etc., but when stored in a barrel (the only way to transfer liquids long ago) for any duration it turns out it might taste great. It might taste even better if the barrels are charred on the inside to remove whatever flavor, smell, or particulate matter leftover from its previous contents; salted fish, olive brine, who knows.
The oldest-fashioned common drink we can imagine while imbibing in public spaces might be a riff on the sling. The sling being sugar and spirit, it might be decorated with mint in order to have that bright, refreshing quality we all know mint to have. Crushed ice being so prone to flash dilution and frankly being maybe some of the only ice around (being chipped off of huge blocks), could’ve been an ideal addition to hot and high-proof whiskey on a warm day in a public space. No shaking or stirring is necessary here– the ice has so much surface area that it simply does the work for you. A copper mug (plastic didn’t exist and glass is breakable) would serve as a conduit for heat into the drink to make sure it dilutes properly and regularly over its course. Maybe you even use this ice-cold copper mug to cool yourself down from the outside while you’re sipping your very cold, very diluted, whiskey cocktail.
Now that we see how most common occurrences come into view because of coincidence or necessity and then become a tradition from there, we can explore a bit more about what we do as humans and why we do it. Have you watched a drag race? A boxing match? Odds are good you saw these on television and were one of many millions of viewers also viewing conveniently from their homes. You can still attend (usually, anyway) these types of things in person, but it can be costly and time-consuming. Televisions have a way of bringing us to more events but somehow keeping us out of them and separating in a way that historically hasn’t occurred until recently. We get to see more but do less and with fewer people, strangely. Now, imagine you’re watching a drag race on TV from your couch but it’s the year 1875.
For starters, TVs don’t exist for another 52 or so years, so you‘d have to get up and go wherever this drag race is taking place. The Derby was modeled after the Epsom Derby, a French tradition with much of the same concept and execution that had been running for more than 100 years consecutively by the time we got around to replicating it.
Derby Day is the only of the three races that have run uninterrupted annually since its launch in 1875. These other two races are far less attended, usually, but the goal is to win all three of them to secure a cash prize and some goodies. The Derby is now the end cap of a weeklong festival in Louisville that includes fireworks, a balloon race, a steamboat race, a huge parade, a marathon, and a basketball classic. Pomp, pomp, and more pomp. By the time the week’s pomp is over, the last two races are to be held within the coming weeks.
By the way, did you know that the term horsepower wasn’t just a clever way to measure the power of a combustion engine? In fact, as all sorts of labor-reducing contraptions began to take part in agriculture and production means, a great many of these contraptions replaced horses. As a method of measuring the work throughput of a contraption, it showed the value of said contraption in a language understood by its consumers.
Why in the heck are we talking about horses, again?
We’re using these examples to show that everything is the way it is because it couldn’t have been any other way without over-complication. We don’t need to make origin stories more interesting than they already are, because the fact that any of them happened at all and in the way they did is absolutely amazing. We’re social animals, and we like to compare our skillsets and watch others compare theirs. It’s what drives progress and innovation and is surely the singular if not simply most important feature that differentiates humans from the rest of sentient beings. I mean, thumbs, prefrontal cortexes, and occipital lobes combined with an upright posture most certainly play a part, but it’s this undeniable urge within us that allows us to take advantage of these other pieces and surge forward.
Bourbon didn’t have to start as an art form discovered by some brilliant first mover. It was a method of preservation and recycling of goods formed of necessity a long time ago. It’s an art form now because we’ve found ways to control it beyond Bourbon’s wildest dreams, even if we’ve somewhat lost track of its original point. The Julep started as a pleasant way to slowly sip what was historically an unrefined and coarse whiskey on a mega-hot day. Derby is a test of might and skill.
We derive value from that which allows us to exercise our advanced and complicated yet primal urges. The horse race doesn’t have to take five hours to be valuable, it just has to keep recurring for years on end as a show of fortitude and social gathering. Bars and restaurants don’t have to serve the best of the best, but they do have to be open to a group if not the public to serve as the socio-political landscape they always have. Of course, good food and good drinks can facilitate that differently, but I’m willing to place a wager that most of our favorite places to be are the “neighborhood” bars scattered about with hours of operation longer than you’d ever want to spend there.
We can boil all of this down and say that when a group of friends is celebrating something so mundane as still being able to breathe another breath on planet Earth, we often mark whatever occasion with the ceremonial ingestion of a 1-1.5oz tiny cup of a spirit.
Let’s keep it up.