Face Off

The first Saturday of every May brings with it the thunder of horses down the homestretch of Churchill Downs as they compete to be crowned the winner of the annual Kentucky Derby. Along with giving women an excuse to wear fashionable hats and men a chance to don seersucker suits, the Derby also gives everyone an excuse to enjoy a glass (or three) of the most iconic drink associated with it, the mint julep!

The mint julep has been promoted and associated with the Derby since the tail end of the 1930’s. According to Churchill Downs, 120,000 mint juleps are served at the Kentucky Derby every year. In order to make all these juleps, Churchill Downs goes through 1,000 pounds of freshly harvested mint, 60,000 pounds of ice, and over 10,000 bottles of Old Forester mint julep mix.

Since the early 1800’s this delicious and refreshing mixture of sugar, water, mint leaves, bourbon, and crushed ice has delighted all of those who have had a chance to try one. While the concept is quite simple, the execution is anything but. Variations abound of the best way to make a mint julep, with each recipe claiming to be the “ultimate” or the “best.” On top of having choices as to what recipe to follow to make a mint julep, consumers also have multiple premixed juleps to choose from. These whiskey based mixtures all claim to be a perfect julep in a bottle, with the only additional ingredients necessary being crushed ice and an optional sprig of mint.

Having had a chance to drink many mint juleps during my time living in Kentucky, I was interested to see how all of these premixed julep bottles stacked up against not only one another, but also against a handmade julep. For the handmade julep, I went with Woodford Reserve’s mint julep recipe since Woodford is the official bourbon of the Kentucky Derby. To get to the bottom of all of this, I crushed a lot of ice and bought a lot of mint and got to drinking a lot of juleps!

Each of the three premixed julep contenders for this ultimate Mint Julep Face Off was made according to the directions on the bottle. For the handmade mint julep, I followed the recipe on the Woodford Reserve website.

Breaking Bourbon: Fred, what's your official role in Bourbon & Beyond?

I'm a co-founder in it, and the curator of the festival. I curate the culinary and bourbon stuff. Less on the culinary, but 100% on the bourbon. I come up with some ideas on the food side. But really everything in the bourbon...that's my footprint...that's like my baby. Especially the panels, I came up with all those. And that's kind of what I do every year. And then I also do promotions for the festival and drink with the artists and stuff, teach them how to taste bourbon...things like that.

Breaking Bourbon:
How did you initially get involved in Bourbon & Beyond?

I am just really a bourbon geek and there is nothing more. I really didn't have it in my plans of breaking into super mainstream stuff. But the more I saw the impact I could have on regular everyday consumers, the more I wanted to do that kind of stuff. I can have more support and have a bigger impact and that’s really what Bourbon & Beyond has. It transformed me a little bit.

Breaking Bourbon:
Ok. So you talked about the food aspect and the stage aspect. But what makes Bourbon & Beyond different than other music festivals that attendees might go to?

There are a lot of festivals that will have some kind of a drink component to it, or food component. But you go there and there is no connection to the food or drink, it's just there. And the food may be good, and the drink may be good. But there's no one there to talk about it. There's no one there to say what it is. And it's a real miss, in my opinion, for a lot of music festivals to have that, because it doesn't matter what the genre is, people who go to music festivals and listen to concerts, they are usually more on the affluent side.

So it is usually the people who listen to the likes of the Foo Fighters, Leon Bridges -  that's your affluent crowd that has a college degree and is out spending money. So I think that's what Bourbon & Beyond is, it is legitimately a bourbon festival. It really is. If you look at our panels for the last three years, those panels have been some of the most engaging in the industry. Last year I got Fred Noe and Jeff Arnett on the stage...Jack Daniels and Jim Beam, a huge rivalry. And no whiskey event in America [has] ever done that. And this year, we have a panel on the history of slavery and American whiskey as a topic...that most people don't want to discuss...but we think it's important.

I'd say what really makes us different, is that there is a thoughtfulness for every square inch of the festival. And specifically on the bourbon. This is one of bourbon’s best chances to convert a French consumer into a fan [for example]. And its happened. I mean, the first year there were truckloads of Eddie Vedder fans, and none of them were bourbon drinkers. And then in the middle of his set, they would go to the big bourbon bar, and then get a cocktail.

But also on the culinary side, we're bringing the people who are on Top Chef, who are the celebrity chefs, and they're kind of like their own rock stars right now. And we're bringing them to the table We're bringing them to people to meet. [For example, there are] a lot of Graham Elliot fans out there. So you bring in that kind of talent, and you know, this festival just stands out so much. [It’s] so much bigger than a lot of those that try to do something like it.

Breaking Bourbon:
The last two years have been two day festival. This will be the first three day festival, which means even more bourbon and music for everyone, right? So what type of bourbon experiences can festival attendees expect when they go to Bourbon & Beyond?

So kind of the whole market would be big bourbon bar, where you go in there and it’s the size of a football field….like spans the whole thing. You know you can get bourbon or you can get a cocktail. There [are also] Tiki components, [as in] there will be bourbon Tiki. You'll find little hidden bars throughout the festival. There's a lot of effort to pair the food with the bourbon. You'll see some fun pizza and bourbon opportunities. But probably one of the coolest for our particular audience is what we call the Hunter Bar. And that's the element that Silver Dollar operates and they're bringing in a bunch of vintage stuff and then bringing in some [feral] pigs and stuff. And then you've got my minibar, which the minibar is the bar where we bring in the craft spirits. I've got Wilderness Trail, MB Roland, and Bluegrass Pillars and then we're also going to put all of our barrel picks in there. And we've partnered with Kroger this year as our retailer. And when I tell you - they were like “Hey, can we do barrel pics for the festival?” I was thinking we might do like five or six. That turned into about 12 to 15!

Breaking Bourbon:
It really sounds like at Bourbon & Beyond you can be any experience level with bourbon to really appreciate that.

Yeah. We definitely have something for the geeks, the panels would get you. But the music draws in such a non-bourbon drinker. In fact, the majority of people who come, like 70%, are from outside of Louisville. And so I think we will have 20 countries, we will have people from almost all the states, we'll have people from everywhere at this festival. And what we're trying to do is to get this [to] where people talk about it like they do Coachella. This is an incredible festival, an incredible lineup, and bourbon is the headline. Bourbon is literally the headliner...star of the show. And when people walk in, they see all this stuff, they listen to music, and they're like, WOW! And they want to come back and they want to do more. It is a very, very important festival for bourbon.

Breaking Bourbon:
What have you learned from your last two go-arounds, helping curate Bourbon & Beyond, that you plan on incorporating into this year's event?

I'd say what I personally learned is that...I am trying to give the people who come the best possible bourbon experience. It's really refreshing to me to see the new blood of fans come in before we're able to taint them and while they're still pure. So Bourbon & Beyond is kind of like the new wave of consumers before we've had a chance to...you know...what's the word I'm looking for...manipulate them into being crotchety curmudgeons.

Breaking Bourbon:
Speaking of the music aspect, do you have any fun stories about the last two festivals of converting any musicians into bourbon drinkers, or getting to hang out and really influence the artists into looking at bourbon in a different light?

Oh, yeah! The first year, I hung out with ZZ Ward, and I taught her about bourbon and tasting and all that, and she fell in love with it. Same with Sean James, a really brilliant blues player. And it was magnificent. Sean and I stayed in touch. ZZ...she's like...she's blowing up. But last year, with the rain, I hung out with David Byrne who was one of the headliners. And we drank some Kentucky Owl and some other stuff. But he was cool. And he is very, very much like he was on stage, very eclectic and unique.

Breaking Bourbon:
Very cool. And is there anyone this year that you're looking forward to seeing and trying to drink bourbon with, or just influence them into looking at bourbon in a different way?

Yeah. The obvious answers are [people] like Dave Grohl from the Foo Fighters. The person I am really most excited to talk to is Willie Nelson's boy, Lucas Nelson. He's an amazing musician...amazing. And I think he gets overshadowed for the fact that he's Willie Nelson's boy. I am a big fan of his, so that's probably who I'm most excited to meet. And of course, we've got the other two festivals. Louder Than Life is the next weekend. And the headliner for that is Guns N’ Roses. I am not gonna lie, I'd love a sip of bourbon with Slash.

Breaking Bourbon:
Wrapping up, you know a lot of people want to know when can we expect you to launch Vodka & Beyond?

So much funny about that. I tried to do a panel on vodka this year, and I couldn't get anyone from the vodka world to join me on the bench. So it's not like I didn't try to give it a presence at Bourbon & Beyond. I was like, “Hey, you guys, you have like an hour to convince me vodka is good. I mean, come on, you know...” but I think in their hearts they just know, they know they are inferior. But there's vodka there. If you are a vodka fan you will find plenty I am sure.

Breaking Bourbon:
Final plug for Bourbon & Beyond this year?

If you can find me and I've got five minutes to spare, I'll have a bourbon with you. I really, truly mean that. I'm busy at this thing, I have things to do, but I really truly and genuinely enjoy just hanging out with people. And you know, I've got to pace myself. What I learned last year...I also shot my Amazon Prime show there...what I learned there is I need to make a little bit more time for hanging out with our people.

About New Riff Distilling

Breaking Bourbon: I know that a lot of the crew does not come from necessarily a whiskey background. Was that accidental, or was that deliberate for some reason?

Mostly that was deliberate. Talking to Larry Ebersold, because first of all we needed a consultant, a master distiller to teach us what to do, and I had a lifetime of knowledge and learning about alcoholic beverages and spirits, but I’d never made them before. I wish I could tell you, yeah, I had a still in my dorm room, man, you know, I never did that. I never owned an illicit still. And so when we opened New Riff, all of us put together had made zero whiskey, zero spirits of any kind. Larry’s advice was...and Ken and I felt this way too...we didn’t necessarily want to just recruit someone out of the Kentucky industry who would come in with a lot of perhaps good preconceptions and foreknowledge and assumptions and practices. That might have been just fine.

But it was Larry’s advice that said, you might just think about hiring a brewer. Hire someone who knows fermentation, because that’s where the flavor is made. You don’t make flavor in a still. Stills don’t make flavor. Stills can...depending on the use of them and everything...they can shape flavor, but they don’t create the flavor. And the flavor is all made in the fermenter. And so we were looking, in fact, to hire a brewer, and we wound up with Brian Sprance our head distiller and production manager. Brilliant guy, came to us out of the craft beer industry. He was probably a master level brewer, more or less, at Boston Beer, and came to work for us, and he had not distilled a lick of whiskey in his life. He didn’t know anything about making whiskey, but he knew all about fermentation. And having him then trained to run the distillery by Larry, that was very much a deliberate act that we didn’t just hire someone…we wanted to find our whiskey, find it ourselves, so to speak.

Breaking Bourbon: How integral was the O.K.I. brand both from a learning side...and development in bringing New Riff to be? Did that inspire [the New Riff concept], or was it always the idea to get into the distillation side?

Yeah, good question, and particularly to the point of education or our experience. So the story of O.K.I. was as Ken Lewis and I were spinning up this distillery in the formative days, we were starting the process, I guess. I said to Ken, you know, we should go and buy a few barrels so that we have an aged whiskey to work with now, you know, to work with not in 10 years or 4, 5, 6 years, but to sell now. And it can be a standard bearer. We didn’t make it, but we did bottle it and we put it together and we vat it together, and moreover we made quality decisions that govern how it plays out, namely to be un-chill filtered and to say, this is how we think whiskey ought to be bottled. And it was a standard bearer. It was a little bit of a placeholder, certainly to the point of meeting people in the industry, bars and retailers and restaurants, and stuff like that.

We did a few picks with various stores and stuff. It was a way to get to know those people. But internally, I don’t think I appreciated when I proposed it to Ken how much of a huge learning platform it would be for us. We did some barrel-finishes...now we haven’t done that at New Riff, and we’re not likely to do that anytime soon...but we did it, and we learned how to do those. We made a sherry-cask finish, that for me, a lover of single malt scotch since the age of teen years old, I loved sherry-cask stuff. So that was just a tremendous learning platform for us both in the vatting and the selecting, but very much in the bottling, packaging, bartending…we had great material to work with. And finally, it was not just any old whiskey. To most people, oh, that’s an Indiana whiskey. Ok, another one of those. I get that. But for us, they are sort of our big brother neighbor distillery. They’re right here in greater Cincinnati. They are a high rye distillate, you know 35% rye with O.K.I., and we were going to be that as well.

And furthermore, we were trained by their emeritus master distiller, Larry Ebersold, he was the master distiller many years there at the Seagram’s plant in Lawrenceburg, IN, and he was serving as New Riff’s consultant, and so we were trained and taught the black arts of how he made whiskey. The 95% rye, his precept, his quality goals, and tricks of the trade and stuff like that. So, we were taught to make a whiskey like that, sort of. I wouldn’t have wanted barrels of wheated whiskey from [another distillery], for example. It was something right here that attracted us to the Indiana stuff.

So O.K.I. was always meant to die. It was not intended to persist as a brand. Perhaps if the supply of aged whiskey had been available later in our careers, we would have continued it, but the fact is it was not available. That whole market dried up. You couldn’t go and get 5, 6, 8, 10 year old whiskey anymore, and we always intended for O.K.I. to die. What we were not going to do is this switcheroo where Indiana juice is in the bottle and suddenly Kentucky juice is in the bottle. We wanted it to be a clean break and a different design.

Breaking Bourbon: And thinking about your size...I know you guys position yourself really mid...I mean you’re a big craft facility...but you’re a small, large producer...a mid-range producer. So tell me about that.

Some people call it the mid-major. We’re the biggest of the small but the smallest of the big. Frankly, I don’t even know if...we probably don’t really consider ourselves a “craft distillery.” We were definitely inspired by that movement, and we’re friends with all those people and we know them well and love them, but we are sour mash whiskey producers in full size barrels for 4 years. Most of what we have done is not the business practices of the small craft distilleries, for better or for worse, I think we can agree, sometimes for the better.

When you have whiskey in a six gallon barrel that’s six months old and they’re pushing it out for 50 bucks a half bottle, we’re not part of that milieu. That said, we are…yeah, a mid-major. We make whiskey just like the big boys, but we make a lot less of it. But we’re cognizant of how much we do make. We make 80,000 barrels a year, and that’s not small potatoes, you know?

Another reason why we want people to come here and see in person what we’re about. I do underline a little bit the commitment to Bottled-in-Bond, why we do it. We had not… what’s the word… agreed, or… we didn’t plan to do that in the early days. We kicked it around, should we do Bottled-in-Bond? And we thought, well maybe, we could do a Bottled-in-Bond, maybe we should do that, I don’t know. We were going to be un-chilled filtered for a certainly. That went without saying. And that was at least one early quality commitment. And we promised ourselves we would go at least four years. If the whiskey wasn’t ready at four, I had to explain to Ken Lewis we got to go to five. Happily, it’s pretty good at four.

So we were always going to be un-chill filtered, but we weren’t settled in the early days on Bottled-in-Bond. And then internally, we started asking ourselves, and we realized, hold on a minute. Bottled-in-Bond is not just a category for old men and bartenders. It is the world’s highest quality standard for an aged brown spirit, full stock, the highest quality standard. Higher than the standards in scotch. Higher than the standards in Cognac.

You know that they add caramel color to those spirits, but also in the case of Cognac, you can add sugar, you can add oak flavoring, you know this? Look at Canadian whiskey, you can add any damn thing you want, practically. Japanese whiskey doesn’t even have to be distilled in Japan to be called Japanese whiskey. A lot of what’s in the bottle of Japanese whiskey...I’m speaking very broadly here...comes from [Scotland]. Sometimes it comes from America. Anyway, it’s the highest standard in the world for any aged brown spirit and since 1897. So when we realized that and we say to ourselves, if we really are putting our heart on our soul about being quality-first...and every single drinks company in the world would tell you they’re quality-first...and you and I know that’s really not the case. At some point, the piper gets paid, and the shareholders put out their hand and a decision gets made.

Breaking Bourbon: You don’t have many with “poor quality” in their advertising. That doesn’t come off so well...

That’s a good way to put it. Anyway, we really, really, mean that, and we do. It is really our goal to be...and this is our goal, Ken and I...and we reiterate it to each other all the time. If our goal truly is to be one of the world’s great small distilleries, than how can we not not only Bottled-in-Bond, but make everything peg to that highest standard in the world.

On top of that, by being un-chill filtered, we don’t even do the one thing that the federal government allows that you could do. If you read part of the Bottled-in-Bond regulations very closely, the only thing you can do to change the whiskey from its native state is to filter it, what they call chill-proofing. Because you have chill-filtered...to make a long story short...we don’t even do that. So we are taking the world’s highest standard and putting a New Riff on that and taking it to an even higher restriction. And with all this kerfuffle about the private barrels and the single barrels, and oh my gosh, this is so amazing, we love your barrels. For me the much bigger import is the fact that we bottle everything in bond. Nobody else does that.

About the Single Barrel Selection Process

Breaking Bourbon: You guys are, from my experience, doing things a little bit differently in terms of the starting point selection of your tasting notes from a lot of different barrels, get it down to a smaller number, and then go from there. [Editor’s note: New Riff first has you choose from approximately 25 pre-selected single barrels via barrelling date and tasting notes to narrow down to 5 options to taste, then provides a very well thought out environment to conduct the tasting. For an in-depth explanation, read about our experience here.]

We did an awful lot of intimate work with Kentucky’s finest distilleries back when we were retailers with barrel picks and other products, things like that. We launched at The Party Source, for example, Four Roses private barrels for that distillery, among other things. And so we knew well how that all works at the retail level, at the experiential level. And when we go to offers that to people in our now distillery, we wanted to do it right. We hope we do everything right, but that’s kind of how we went about that. I hear from other groups and stores and our customers, things like, you know, you hear horror stories about where this wound up at other institutions or distilleries. Like, they go to a tasting and they’re all tasting out of a common glass. They pull it out of a barrel and pass a glass around.

I’m pretty sure you guys can afford getting some glassware, you know? It’s just uncivilized and things like that.

But the notes that we put out, these tasting notes...look, back when I was doing these, I never wanted notes. Don’t give me the note. Just give me the whiskey and get out of the way. In fact, honestly, at The Party Source, I almost never went to the distillery to do a pick for one thing. It was long enough ago that they were fold-over thrilled-happy at distilleries that someone wanted to do a pick, and they didn’t care if you came there or something. Today, many distilleries, including in a way, New Riff, although we’re not absolutely dogmatic about it, to constrain somewhat. I know Four Roses does this, again. Places require you to come to the distillery, they’re not just going to send out samples. And by the way, one reason they don’t like to do that so much anymore is it chives up a lot of the barrels. If you have 100 barrels, and you want people to pick 5 barrels out of them, and you start sending out 4 barrels at a time, what happens? Suddenly you’re waiting on people to get back to you, and they take a long time, or they blow you off, or whatever they do. So there is that. I never wanted a tasting note though.

And I have some sort of our…how do I put it…more evolved or more sophisticated bar- restaurant retailer clients who are extraordinarily experienced and bourbon-experts, they sometimes pick them at random, you know, give me that one and that one and that one. I had one retailer in Louisville say, “Ehhh, just give me four barrels, from, let’s say, even numbered dates.” Ok. 10, 12, 14, 16, like that. That’s a great way to randomize what you’re tasting.

Breaking Bourbon: And how do you get to those barrels that are going to end up in the single-barrel program, at this point?

We taste every lot of whiskey, by which we mean, at New Riff, fermenters...and this is an interesting point, really, it’s the more important point than other aspects of single-barrel or private-barrel programs...most larger distilleries have…so you distill a batch of whiskey. A fermenter full of whiskey. It goes through the still you get the white dog, etc. Most places, that goes to a ginormous tank, big as your house, and all the whiskey pours into that and they cut it and they start filling barrels. And by this, means the batch-to-batch, fermenter-to-fermenter difference...there’s a slight difference between each one. This one get that flavor or that one gets this flavor…is largely ameliorated and kind of blended away if you will, which is great for consistency, and that’s a very smart way to make whiskey.

We happen here to not really be able to do that. Well, we distill a fermenter whiskey, and it goes to a gage tank, and that gage tank is only big enough to hold the output of one fermentation. That’s not absolutely discreetly dogmatically true. We have...perhaps you saw on your tour...a beer well. So a fermenter goes with the beer well, and we distill it out of the beer well. It takes about 7 or 8 hours to go through a whole fermenter in the beer well. Well we top that beer well off from other fermenters through the day. So there is a small amount of combining or mixing together different fermentations, but there’s also...at least in a relative sense...there’s a more concrete, discrete line between each fermentation than at many distilleries.

The long and short of this is, Nick, that we see a difference not only barrel to barrel, but lot to lot. So we always give people advice when they’re picking...don’t pick stuff all from the same lot. I don’t care if you really like this note and that note and this flavor...be sure and pick some from different lots, because we get to see a flavor, not only a difference in flavor, not only barrel to barrel, but lot to lot. So we change each lot of whiskey, and based on that, we go into that lot or not and pull out some single barrels.

About New Riff’s Future

Nick: Is there anything on the horizon that you’re able to talk about at this point with upcoming releases or upcoming experiments or projects that you guys are working on?

Well we make three what we call “main” whiskeys, by which I mean we make them every month - bourbon, rye, and malted rye. 100% malted rye grain, right? And we only make three fermenters a month of malted rye. We made it very sporadically in the early years...in the early days. At any rate, we make those three. So the next sort of official, if you will, whiskey to come out will be malted rye. That probably won’t hit the market until fall of 2020.

Breaking Bourbon: Little ways off, yeah, I saw that one a little bit, we talked about that one a little bit [when visiting New Riff].

Yeah, we’re going to give it a little extra time to age and let it be a solid 5 years old, not 4, and kind of make a little exclamation point out of it. So that’s coming down the pipe.

And then as well as that, we make...perhaps you appreciated on the tour...how we have the ability to digest different grains.

We can dump any bag of grain we want to into the process. For one thing, that’s how we make 100% malted rye. We have the ability to go outside of our silos and dump in 2,000 lb. bags of whatever grain we want and then that takes its malted run. So we’ve made a whole bunch of different things. We’ve made wheated bourbon, we made heirloom-grain bourbon, we’ve made heirloom-grain rye, we’ve made chocolate oatmeal stout bourbon where we were inspired by our background as brewers, beer lovers, to make a bourbon so it’s mostly corn, but there’s oats in it and malted oats and things like that. So those things will come out, I don’t know when, but in the future, as special limited editions. And for what it’s worth...but just so you know, those are not accessible for private barrels. And in fact will not be bottled as single-barrels, probably, they will just be Bottled-in-Bond.

Breaking Bourbon: To go forward for New Riff, what’s on the more immediate horizon? What’s on the long-term horizon? What might we expect New Riff to look like in 10 or 20 years from now, all things going as you guys kind of envision them today?

Well, I don’t think I can say really with accuracy here. But I would say that we do hold that 20-30% of our output every year to become older. That still is not a lot. 20% or 30% of what we made 4 years ago, in 2015, years from now, still is not a lot of whiskey. I hear from folks a lot, I can’t wait until it gets older. And it will get older. I don’t know how old, 7, 10, 8, I don’t know. But there won’t be a lot of it. So I hope that by 10 or 20 years from now, we have simply more whiskey to share with the world.

Furthermore, maybe, more whiskeys to share with the world. Right now we have bourbon and rye. What does malted rye do? What do our specialty, as we call them, for want of a better term, the speciality whiskey do? What is the perception of our version of wheated bourbon? And I’m not necessarily saying it’s the cat’s meow but we have the opportunity to change perceptions in the future with other risks, if you will, that we will do.

To make this way more official than it needed to be, I really got into the act. Stainless steel julep cups were purchased, along with an ice mallet and ice bag to hand crush all of the ice used for each julep. All juleps were made according to the recipes listed above and then were blindly handed to me one by one to sample, review, and rank.

Julep #1

The first mint julep blindly handed to me is noticeably sugary. Light on mint with a weak bourbon profile, this julep leaves a light sugar and mint aftertaste on my mouth well after drinking. After tasting all of the other juleps and coming back to this one again, it’s clearly my least favorite of the bunch. Due to the lightness of the bourbon flavor profile, my initial impression is that this is Old Forester.

Julep #2

The second julep up is more bourbon forward and contains a lighter sugar profile. While the julep gives off a great mint smell, the actual flavor profile isn’t that minty at all. Due to the bourbon forward profile my initial impression is that this is the handmade Woodford julep.

Julep #3

This julep is surprising. It contains almost no sugar and has a very light mint flavor profile. What it does contain is a stronger hint of bourbon compared to the others and really reminds you that you’re drinking a bourbon based drink. My assumption is Maker’s Mark.

Julep #4

This julep is completely different all around. The sugar and mint taste completely different and instead of a strong bourbon flavor, I’m presented with a very strong younger corn forward whiskey. Only one bottle could contain that profile, and that’s MB Roland.

So how did the results turn out? Shockingly not at all how I expected them to! Listed below are my julep rankings from least favorite to favorite along with its corresponding tasting note number:


Maker's Mark (Julep #1):

This was really surprising to me! My mistake was assuming that because the julep was dark in the bottle it would contain a more pronounced bourbon flavor profile like I’d expect out of a bottle of regular Makers. Instead, this mix was just disappointing. It tasted the most manufactured of the group and had the worst aftertaste.


MB Roland (Julep #4):

This julep was so different I really had to stop and sip this several times to see what I thought about it. It’s refreshing to have a premade mix option that throws you a curveball. Yes the whiskey flavor profile was stronger than it should be, which slightly off-balances everything, however the cane sugar added a really nice twist combined with the addition of the spearmint leaves (which you can see traces of floating in the bottle). This resulted in a great nose of mint infused simple syrup. It truly tasted handmade and its unpretentious flavor profile reminded me of a version of a stronger julep you’d serve for close friends at a casual backyard derby party at your house


Old Forester (Julep #2):

For being only 60 proof, it came across as a more bourbon forward drink than it had any right to. It’s actually well balanced albite light on the mint. It was not as sugary as the Makers and MB Roland juleps, which made it easier to drink more of. Not only was it the best tasting premixed bottle of the bunch, it was also the easiest to make, as you only needed to add ice to the mix. From bottle-to-party drink in about two seconds flat.


Woodford Reserve (Julep #3):

I guess in the end you can try to bottle a cocktail, but the original still holds true as the best. The recipe listed on Woodford’s website resulted in an all-around delicious mint julep. Additionally, if the initial julep you make doesn’t meet your needs, you always have the ability to add more or less of any ingredient to your liking.

This was a more enlightening Face Off than I thought it would be. It turns out there’s a reason that Brown-Forman owns the mint julep category when it comes to both premixed bottles and being the official bourbon of the Kentucky Derby. If you’re hosting a derby party and need a quick and easy julep fix for your guests, look no further than their Old Forester premixed julep. And if you have a little more time on your hands, then dive in and use their Woodford mint julep recipe to whip up some amazing handmade juleps. Either way, whatever option you choose, don’t forget the mint!

Written By: Jordan

April 7, 2016
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