Formerly of Jim Beam, Ben Milam Whiskey's master distiller Marlene Holmes might live in Texas now, but she'll never let go of her love for Kentucky. She has created a whiskey meant for mint juleps.
Just in time for this weekend's Kentucky Derby, Marlene's Limited Edition Springtime Sipper has launched at the Blanco distillery as a blend of two 11-year-old bourbons. Along with Ben Milam's new CEO Heather Greene, she aims to showcase with the seasonal whiskey and other limited-release bottles coming this year that batching whiskey is an underappreciated art that can be more difficult than you might think.
For the Springtime Sipper, Holmes said she tasted about a dozen different barrels and honed in on a handful containing Tennessee bourbon — because, of course, Kentucky isn't the only state that makes excellent whiskey — before finally deciding on the two winning barrels to blend.
"It is three parts creamy to one part pop for a perfect whiskey for mint juleps," she said.
One particularly impressive barrel provided the "creamy, silky vanilla taste," and the other is the reason your mouth will pop, thanks to a peppery, spicy flavor, she said. But the whiskey isn't an equal blend of these two barrels, a reminder that batching whiskey can be as much a science as it is an art, something you sense and then put together methodically. (Batching whiskey is a fairly common practice distilleries rely on for consistency.)
"I selected varying percentages of bourbon from these two barrels to get precisely the taste I liked. Then I added water to 80 proof in three different blends, percentage-wise, and came up with a 3-to-1 ratio for the final blend," Holmes said.
The ice-topped julep, which cocktail historian David Wondrich has called “the first true American drink,” originated in colonial Virginia. It's a fairly simple drink, calling for crushed ice, sugar, mint leaves and bourbon, but can be tricky to prepare. (Make sure you know what you're going to do with the mint leaves, whether that's muddling or bruising them or even turning them into a mint syrup. Plus, have extra on hand to use as a garnish.)
MORE: How to make a proper mint julep for your Derby Day festivities
Mint juleps became the official race cocktail of the Kentucky Derby in 1939. Ben Milam nods to the big race by using the same colors in Marlene's Limited Edition Springtime Sipper logo as that of the 145th running of the derby. The event returns to Churchill Downs on May 4.
Grab a bottle of the seasonal bourbon for $55 at Ben Milam's tasting room at 208 Carlie Lane in Blanco before your Derby Day watch party. The distillery named for a hero of the Texas Revolution is open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday.
For more information, visit benmilamwhiskey.com.