Derby Day Lamb with Mint Julep Gastrique

The Kentucky Derby is the annual Grade I stakes race for three-year-old Thoroughbred horses, held annually in Louisville, Kentucky on the first Saturday each May. A number of traditions play a large role in the Derby atmosphere especially the mint julep; an iced drink consisting of simple syrup, mint and bourbon. Kentucky burgoo (a variation of the traditional French cassoulet,) is also a popular Kentucky dish during Derby week.

The mint julep originated in the southern United States, probably during the eighteenth century. The first mention of a mint julep in print came in a book by John Davis published in London in 1803, where it was described as "a dram of spirituous liquor that has mint steeped in it, taken by Virginians of a morning.” The term 'julep' is generally defined as a sweet drink, particularly one used as a vehicle for medicine. U.S. Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky introduced the drink to Washington, D.C., at the Round Robin Bar in the illustrious Willard Hotel during his residence in the city. It later became the official drink of Churchill Downs in association with the Kentucky Derby in 1938.

Gastrique is a sweet and sour sauce that also begins with a simple syrup which is caramelized, deglazed with vinegar (white, cider, red wine or balsamic dependent on your flavor profile) and flavored with herbs, spices, berries or fruit juices. The flavoring of a gastrique should be based on the protein it is being served with. For example, a rich blackberry gastrique would enhance fattier red meats like duck or beef, while a more delicate herbed citrus sauce would complement fish or chicken dishes. The flavor combination of mint and bourbon are the perfect accompaniment to one of our favorite meals: grilled lamb.

So whether you enjoy an icy liquid mint julep or lamb drizzled with our mint julep gastrique to celebrate this year’s 138th running of the “Run for the Roses,” we hope you’ll be cheering “I’ll Have Another!”

Mint Julep Gastrique
  • ½ cup sugar
  • 2 tablespoons water
  • ½ cup white vinegar
  • Pinch salt
  • 30 (about ½ cup) fresh mint leaves, torn
  • 1 tablespoon bourbon

Mix sugar and water in the bottom of a medium, heavy-bottomed saucepan; the mixture should resemble wet sand. Heat the sugar mixture over medium-high heat until the sugar granules completely dissolve and bubbles form. The tip of a spoon pulled through the mixture should leave a trail.

Watch as the sugar begins to caramelize. It will turn blonde at first. If you plan on making a delicate gastrique to pair veal or fish stop at this stage. For a more concentrated taste, continue to let the sugar caramelize to a deep, golden color; the darker the caramelization, the deeper the flavor. Swirl the pan gently to help it cook evenly. Remember not to use non-heat-proof utensils or to get the molten sugar on your skin because it is extremely hot.

When you've reached the desired level of caramelization, add the vinegar (in equal proportion to the sugar). This step can be intimidating, as the sugar mixture is very hot. To keep the splattering to a minimum, pour the vinegar into the caramel quickly rather than adding it little by little. It will make a loud sizzling sound and left off a good deal vinegary steam.

The sugar will immediately coagulate at the bottom of the pan, this is normal even though it looks like a mess. Continue to cook the sauce until the sugar re-dissolves, taking the mixture back to a liquid state. This is your basic gastrique which will continue to caramelize as it simmers.

This is the stage to add the torn mint leaves and allow to simmer for about 10 minutes. Once the gastrique has reached a thick syrup, remove from the heat. Strain the syrup through a sieve to remove mint leaves and add one teaspoon of bourbon. Remember the sauce will continue to thicken as it cools.

Drizzle the mint julep gastrique over sliced lamb and serve immediately. The gastrique can be made ahead and reheated just before serving. Five to one odds you’ll have a winner dinner!

Originally published May 3, 2012