Mint abounds at the annual Four Roses “Rose Julep Competition.” | Photo by Sara Havens

Last Thursday at the Kentucky Derby Festival’s “Festival Unveiled” event, a sold-out crowd of Louisvillians got their first waft of spring as six Kentucky bartenders whipped up exceptional versions of mint juleps. Each bartender’s station had an overflowing bag of mint, which they would muddle, slap, spank, garnish — and sometimes all the above.

I was asked to be a judge for the annual Four Roses “Rose Julep Cocktail Competition” on behalf of Insider Louisville, and because juleps are one of my absolute favorite cocktails, I couldn’t turn them down. In fact, this is my umpteenth time judging this competition, and the talent and creativity continue to grow and grow — much like mint in a herb garden.

This year’s contestants had won previous rounds in order to compete here at “Unveiled,” and only two were from Louisville — Colleen McCarthy Clarke from Martini Italian Bistro and Dane Durand from Proof on Main.

Of the others, two were from Covington — Bill Whitlow from Rich’s Proper Food & Drink and Robert Cate from Hotel Covington — and two were from Lexington — Oliver Winn from Parlay Social and Terry Keith from Goodfella’s Wiseguy Lounge.

There were four of us judges, and we went around to each station and had the bartender make us each our very own mint julep, explaining their process, ingredient selection and choice of Four Roses (regular, Small Batch or Single Barrel) in under five minutes. Our job was to score them in the categories of aroma, presentation, taste and creativity.

Again, the creativity was off the charts this year, which truly made it hard to pick a favorite — because I would order every last one of them if I sat down at a bar and they were all on the menu. To give you a taste, let’s walk through each one.

Bill Whitlow of Rich’s Proper Food & Drink in Covington puts the finishing touches on his Storm Clouds Over the Downs. | Photo by Sara Havens

First up was Whitlow’s Storm Clouds Over the Downs, a name he chose because every time he manages to make it to a Derby, it tends to rain. For his julep, he first smoked the mason jars before preparing even the first ingredient so they could collect flavor.

His recipe consisted of Four Roses Single Barrel, an orange peel liqueur called China China, Torres Spanish Brandy, Woodford Chocolate Bitters, orange blossom water, smoked maple syrup, bananas foster syrup and mint leaves. And once he poured his concoction over the crushed ice, Whitlow added more mint, plus a garnish made of powdered sugar and allspice.

The taste was incredible, with hints of campfire from the smoke accentuating the flavor-forward bourbon cocktail. (The biggest mistake a bartender can make with a mint julep is burying the bourbon, and thankfully this one did not do that.)

Dane Durand of Proof on Main adds the dolphin garnish to his Ken-Tiki Juleps. | Photo by Sara Havens

Next up was Durand’s Ken-Tiki Julep, which essentially was a mint julep that tagged along to a tiki party. The recipe used Four Roses Single Barrel, pineapple juice, pineapple vinegar, Chinese five-spice syrup and Smith & Cross Jamaican pot still rum. He also poured his over crushed ice, and then it was time for the garnish.

Garnishes are just as important as any ingredient inside a cocktail, but for this drink, Durand went above and beyond. His consisted of an entire baked banana, peel still on, with a slice of torched pineapple protruding from the end sticking out of the glass. Essentially, Durand’s garnish looked like a dolphin with pineapple in its mouth. Unbelievable.

Turns out pineapple plays well with bourbon, as the drink was a delicious hybrid of julep and punch.

Oliver Winn of Lexington’s Parlay Social garnishes his Shenanigans Delight with a strawberry. | Photo by Sara Havens

Next, it was Winn’s Shenanigans Delight, another fruit-forward julep that used Four Roses Small Batch, Domaine De Caton, homemade strawberry-banana simple syrup and lime juice. The recipe was simple, original and also allowed the bourbon to be the star, which is key in mint juleps.

Winn also included a fancy garnish, this one of a strawberry that had been cut to resemble a budding flower. Added to a sprig of mint, it looked exactly like a rose. The concoction also was quite tasty and stood up to the melting ice, as I came back for more sips later on in the competition.

Terry Keith of Goodfella’s Wiseguy Lounge in Lexington puts the finishing touches on her Whiskey A-Peel. | Photo by Sara Havens

Then it was on to Keith’s Whiskey A-Peel, an interesting fruity mix that also employed banana — which seemed to have been the theme of the day. Her recipe called for Four Roses Small Batch, muddled mint, lime juice, Giffard banana liqueur, house-made apple honey syrup and a dash of Fee Brothers peach bitters.

Served in a typical julep cup, Keith’s drink was well-balanced and quite unique in its taste. She served it with a garnish of baked banana and fresh slices of peach on top — and mint, of course. Lots and lots of mint.

Colleen McCarthy-Clarke of Martini Italian Bistro offers up It’s Sorreal, which was so gorgeous we needed a closeup. | Photo by Sara Havens

Next up was McCarthy-Clarke’s It’s Sorreal, which was inspired by a popular Jamaican drink called sorrel. Her recipe called for Four Roses Small Batch, sorrel (Caribbean hibiscus, ginger and allspice juice), honey water, spiced cherry preserve and Bittermans Tiki Bitters. The combination of these ingredients made for a beautiful, dark red liquid that was stunning as it was poured over ice in a silver julep cup.

McCarthy-Clarke also creatively garnished hers with a sorrel sucker in the shape of a horseshoe, a cinnamon stick and mint, of course.

Robert Cate of Hotel Covington prepares to add the mint and blackberry to his Black Rose. | Photo by Sara Havens

Last but not least, Cate’s Black Rose was a simple yet tasty recipe that featured Four Roses regular, peppermint and blackberry syrup, Pimms No. 1 and Bittercube’s Jamaican No. 2 Bitters. The savory notes of the blackberry complemented the bourbon-centric drink, and Cate garnished it with mint, powdered sugar and a blackberry.

After sipping through all six of these wonderful cocktails, it was time for the judges to record their final numbers. The good news with this competition is the people attending also get to cast a favorite, so usually, there are two winners each time.

This truly was the hardest competition yet to pick a favorite, as all six brought their A-game to the show. I had to go with my gut and scored Whitlow with the highest number of points. His cocktail was not only bourbon-forward, but the flavors he chose — the maple syrup, the smoking of the glass, etc. — all came together in one delectable package. Plus, his, too, also got better the more I came back to it.

Turns out the other judges felt the same, as Whitlow took the No. 1 spot for Judges’ Choice, followed by McCarthy-Clarke in second place and Winn in third. For the People’s Choice, it was Winn for the win, followed by McCarthy-Clarke in second and Whitlow in third.