I've never been to Kentucky, don't plan on going to Kentucky, and could care less about horse-racing. So then why do I love celebrating the Derby come May? Because it's a tradition and I'm a sucker for those—especially one that celebrates gaudy Southern fashion at its best (when else can you walk into a bar in New York City and find a gaggle of Derby revelers in coordinating feathered floppy hats?).
But the real reason I appreciate Derby Day: It's the only day of the year I drink a mint julep. Traditionally made with fresh mint, bourbon, sugar, and water, the Kentucky-born cocktail can sometimes be too sweet for me, which is why when I have friends over and we pretend to watch the Derby today, I'll be serving up this strawberry-and-jalapeño riff.
Muddled strawberries deliver natural sweetness without a need for added sugar, while a jalapeño simple syrup gives the drink a subtle heat, but not too much. (Don't be intimidated by making a simple syrup—as the name implies, it's simple, just sugar and water, and don't you want to brag that you infused your own simple syrup with hot peppers? Thought so.) The mint plays down the heat, so even people who don't love spicy cocktails will still find this julep totally drinkable.
First, make the jalapeño simple syrup: Combine equal parts water and sugar in a saucepan with two halved jalapeños and simmer, 15 to 20 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool. (I used 1 cup each water and sugar so that I could have a batch for future cocktails; in a jar, it will keep for months in your fridge.)
Muddle a few chopped strawberries and put them in your cocktail glass.
Add 2 ounces bourbon, 1 ounce jalapeño simple syrup, 8 sprigs fresh mint, and top it off with seltzer and ice. Stir well. Garnish with mint, strawberry, and red jalapeño.
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