Trying to track down the One True Derby Cocktail is a fool’s errand.

So many Derbies, so little time.

There are so many Derbies, in fact, that it looks like every bartender who wanted to promote himself at race time would come up with his own version. Instant ballyhoo. As a result, there is no agreement on how “the” Derby should be made, but recipes seem to fall in to two groups: the Manhattanesque bourbon style and the peachy gin style. I’ll leave the gin drinks for summer peach season (okay, there’s no summer peach season in Minnesota, but in the off chance that some good ones come in, we’ll do the writeup); here we’ll focus on the best of class for those good, wintry bourbon drinks.

Manhattan Style, with Bénédictine

The spicy, sweet, herbal Bénédictine puts the flavor of this version somewhere between the sweetness of a bourbon Manhattan and the spiciness of a rye Manhattan. There is less sweetness and more of an assertive herbaceousness at the back of the tongue, providing an earthiness not normally present in a proper Manhattan.

Derby Cocktail (bourbon), photo © 2011 Douglas M. Ford. All rights reserved.
Derby Cocktail (bourbon)

Here’s the basic template for this style of Derby:

Derby (Manhattan style)

  • 2 oz bourbon (McKenna or Virginia Gentleman)
  • ¼ oz Bénédictine
  • 1 dash Angostura bitters

Stir with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass; garnish with lemon.

I have found that the Bénédictine can easily overpower the bourbon. Hess’s 8:1 model is very good, and can be pushed to about 6:1 and still seem balanced.

Manhattan Sour Style

Ted Haigh, in Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails, says there were three Derby recipes in the 1947 Bartender’s Guide by Trader Vic. The version he chooses as his favorite starts with the Manhattan’s bourbon and sweet vermouth, but is sweetened and fruity–sort of a Manhattan Goes To The Tropics:

Derby (Trader Vic sour style)

  • 1 oz bourbon (Bulleit)
  • ½ oz sweet vermouth (M&R)
  • ½ oz orange curaçao (Grand Marnier)
  • ¾ oz lime juice

Shake with ice and strain into a cocktail glass.  Garnish with lime and/or mint. (Haigh’s illustration shows the Derby with mint, and with a great lime wedge sticking up in the air, tiki style, very amusing.)

Given it’s provenance, it’s not surprising that this elegant sour seems to live halfway between Manhattan and Tikiland.

Extra Link: Robert Hess mixes a bourbon and Bénédictine Derby (video) at Small Screen Network.