Whether you were born in the Bluegrass like me, or just enjoy horsing around in a flamboyant hat, everyone knows and loves the Kentucky Derby. I’ve learned the food scene in Washington is no exception, with several fabulous parties across the district celebrating the greatest two minutes in sports. I was initially distressed about missing the actual race, but was quickly delighted to see events and menus packed with Kentucky cuisine.
While there were several free and ticketed soirees across the city, I opted for three free events at some of my absolute favorite urban bourbon bars. Queue the trumpet’s call, because you’ll want to gallop to these eateries and beg them to offer delicious Derby specials year-round.
Jack Rose Dining Saloon – Derby Hors D’oeuvres
Jack Rose offered Flying Dog’s delicious mint julep ale and free Southern hors d-oeuvres. This flaky biscuit slathered with pimento cheese and topped with melt-in-your-mouth ham was a standout.
Tip: If you plan to go to Jack Rose next year, arrive right when the party starts to get a seat or table, otherwise the terrace crowds quickly.
Southern Efficiency – Julep Jubilee
Urban Bourbon readers are no strangers to Southern Efficiency, as I’ve raved over their Bourbon Heritage Month menu, the masterful mixings of Bar Manager Paul Taylor and the establishment’s acclaimed owner Derek Brown. This bourbon bar is a must on Derby day. Why? Craft mint juleps – on tap. Those craving some fizz will want the Champagne Julep with cognac, mint, sugar, bitters and bubbles. I opted for the Pineapple Julep with pineapple infused rum, mint, sugar, coffee liqueur and bitters. Juleps are $10 and a good deal, as they’re made with top-notch ingredients and presented beautifully.
Tip: Yet again, arrive early to snag one of Southern Efficiency’s twenty-six seats. Then you can also order Kentucky dishes like their rolled oyster hot brown (one of my personal favorites) and Benedictine dip while you sip your julep.
Barrel – Cocktails and Cast Iron Skillets
Barrel is another eatery readers will remember, as I praised their brunch and discussed Bravo’s Top Chef with Chef Garret Fleming. As an eatery named for the aging container of Kentucky’s beloved spirit, it was here where I ordered dinner and watched the 6:34 p.m. race. Six drinks and five dishes were on the specialty menu, but the barrel-aged mint julep caught my eye.
Classic juleps overflow with crushed ice, but Barrel’s julep had a single, slowly melting ice cube. The Bulleit bourbon was aged in used Branca Menta barrels and mixed with sugar, elevating the traditional mint julep flavors to a new level of intensity.
As for food, we went with Chef Fleming’s recommendation and ordered the hot brown, Kentucky’s flagship open-faced sandwich, and wood fried oysters with horseradish butter. The hot brown was perfectly prepared and served in a cast iron skillet with juicy turkey, heirloom tomatoes, mornay sauce and bacon. In fact, the turkey was the best I’ve ever tasted in a hot brown dish.
The flavors of Kentucky are represented well by Washington’s Southern food scene and for that I am eternally grateful. If I again find myself in the district on Derby Day 2017, Urban Bourboners will know to find me at one of these whiskey watering holes. They help make my old Kentucky home seem not so far away.