In this land of bluegrass and bourbon, all eyes will be cast toward Churchill Downs in Louisville on Saturday.
For that is Derby Day and, as always, one of the world's most famous horse races will be heralded with raised silver goblets of mint juleps and large brunch and dinner parties featuring such regional specialties as Kentucky burgoo, country ham and beaten biscuits.
Dessert, of course, will be Derby Pie.
Although bourbon is best known as a beverage, here and there in the kitchens of Kentucky, cooks have devised tasty dishes using their native whiskey -- no great surprise since more than 90 percent of the bourbon consumed in this country is produced in the 17 distilleries that are nestled in the rolling hills that ring Louisville.
Bourbon is a uniquely American drink, and no alcohol designated as "bourbon whiskey" may be imported into this country. If you ask a Kentuckian, he will tell you that his state is the only state that produces bourbon, a statement that is only about a 10-percent exaggeration of the truth.
Kentucky bourbon has had a rough-and-tumble history, made all the more colorful by such legendary characters as Carry Nation who, wielding a hatchet in one hand and a bible in the other, brought national attention to the prohibition movement around the turn of the century. (To this day, 96 out of Kentucky's 120 counties are dry.)
But the Kentucky distillers had had a good head start. By the late 1700s, farmers immigrating from Pennsylvania had discovered that much of central Kentucky sits over a limestone shelf. The limestone acts as as a natural filter to water, and the fresh spring water -- free of iron and other minerals -- contributes to the unique taste of bourbon.
Couple this factor with fertile, corn-producing soil and four distinct seasons to nurture the aging process, and you have a product as inexorably tied to the land as parmesan cheese is to Parma and clotted cream is to Devon.
Curiously enough, the first bourbon distiller is believed to have been a reverend named Elijah Craig who, in 1789, concocted a whiskey drink of corn, rye, barley, malt, and other grains. Word of this early whiskey spread quickly and as time went on, so much of the spirit was produced in and around Bourbon County that the name Bourbon came to stand for Kentucky whiskey. By 1811 (19 years after Kentucky became a state), approximately 2,000 farm-oriented distilleries were operational in Kentucky.
These early distillers were already using the white oak, charred aging barrels that contribute to the unique flavor and amber color of bourbon. Nowadays, although small stills and manual labor have been replaced by enormous stills operated by computer technology, use of these white oak barrels is still considered an indispensable part of the process. All Kentucky bourbon is aged for a minimum of four years.
The distinct flavor of bourbon makes it an interesting spirit to use in cooking. If you feel like celebrating Derby Day by trying out some recipes that show bourbon to good advantage, here are a few that are likely to please: JULEP (1 serving)
No sampling of bourbon recipes can omit instructions for making a mint julep, a powerful drink that visitors to Kentucky generally find themselves sipping very slowly. A silver julep cup is the ideal vessel for serving the drink as it can be chilled so well, but a glass tumbler does quite nicely in a pinch. This and the following two recipes have been adapted from Marion Flexner's superb cookbook "Out of Kentucky Kitchens," published in 1949.
1 teaspoon superfine sugar (or more, to taste)
1 tablespoon chopped fresh mint leaves
1 tablespoon water
Shaved or crushed ice to fill the goblet
1 to 2 ounces Kentucky bourbon
Few sprigs of fresh mint
Place the sugar and chopped mint in a small bowl. Bruise the mint well with a muddler or the back of a wooden spoon, until the mixture becomes paste-like. Add the water and stir into a thickish green syrup. Fill a julep cup or glass half full of shaved ice. Pour the mint syrup and then bourbon to taste over the ice. Fill the glass to the top with additional ice and garnish with sprigs of mint. Just before serving, imbed a straw deeply into the crushed ice and cut it to the approximate height of the mint. BUTTERMILK BOURBON PIE (6 to 8 servings)
1 9-inch pie crust
3 large eggs
3/4 cup sugar
3 tablespoons flour
1 1/2 cups buttermilk
3 tablespoons melted butter
3 tablespoons Kentucky bourbon
1/2 cup currants (optional)
Freshly grated nutmeg to taste
Prick and pre-bake the pie pastry at 425 degrees for 10 minutes. Set aside. Prepare the filling by beating the eggs with the sugar until light and lemon-colored. Beat in the flour and then the buttermilk. Finally, beat in the butter and bourbon and currants, if desired. Pour the filling into the pre-baked pie crust and grate a bit of nutmeg on top. Bake in a 375-degree oven just until the filling sets, about 20 to 30 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature. CHOCOLATE BOURBON BALLS (Makes 18 to 20 cookies)
1 cup ground vanilla wafers or day-old (dry) pound cake
1 cup ground pecans
2 tablespoons cocoa powder
2 tablespoons light corn syrup
3 to 4 tablespoons Kentucky bourbon
Confectioners' sugar for sprinkling
Mix the ground wafers or cake with the ground pecans, and cocoa. Stir in the corn syrup and 3 tablespoons of the bourbon. Knead slightly until the mixture forms a mass, adding more bourbon if necessary. Taking a teaspoon at a time, form the dough into small balls. Roll them in confectioners' sugar and place them on a rack or cookie sheet to dry out for about 2 to 3 hours. Then roll once more in confectioners' sugar. Wrap each bourbon ball separately in waxed paper or plastic wrap and store in an air-tight box. BOURBON BARBECUE SAUCE (Makes about 2 cups)
This mixture makes a tasty marinade or basting sauce for hamburgers or spare ribs.
1 cup ketchup
1/3 cup bourbon
1/4 cup molasses
2 tablespoons vinegar
1 tablespoon worcestershire sauce
2 teaspoons soy sauce
1/2 teaspoon dry mustard
1/4 teaspoon pepper
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 tablespoon lemon juice
Mix all of the ingredients together and let them stand at room temperature for several hours before using.