How to make a Fascinator, a minty Kentucky Derby cocktail that isn't a julep — or made with bourbon

Ask the Oracle Pour: What should I drink today? All signs point to the Fascinator, a classic gin cocktail

By Erin Keane
Published April 29, 2021 8:45PM (UTC)
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The Fascinator (Illustration by Ilana Lidagoster/Salon)

"The Oracle Pour" is Salon Food's spirits column that helps you decide what to drink tonight.

Consider the traditional drink: eggnog at Christmas, champagne on New Year's Eve, mint juleps on Kentucky Derby Day. The latter might be the only day of the year in which the mint julep is encouraged — simple syrup can make bourbon, already on the sweeter side of whiskies, a bit cloying, while the mint, usually a welcome addition, somehow manages to make it worse — but the power of tradition still makes it a compulsory offering. And then there are those upholders of good taste who would never order a julep but do insist that Kentucky bourbon is the only drink that matters when gathering on this day. But what if you don't want bourbon? What to drink instead?

Tradition can deceive us into ignoring our own preferences and bending to the will of the collective. What good does it do to uphold a tradition when it doesn't make you feel more connected to the communal experience through time? And yet, there can be great meaning to be mined from participating in those traditions, especially where food, drink and celebrations are concerned. So here is a word I find useful when considering how to participate in traditions: Once. Therefore, drink a mint julep made with Kentucky bourbon while watching the Kentucky Derby once. Wear an outrageous hat while doing so once. Pick a horse to cheer on, whether you know anything about racing or not, once. Try it, and if it's not for you, don't do it again. 

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With all traditions and habits, it's helpful check in with yourself periodically: Is this still serving you? What does your heart tell you right now? What do you really want today? 

Avoiding the traditional drink doesn't mean you can't honor the occasion with an appropriate, festive cocktail. After all, new traditions can be made with one good pour. 

Fascinators — fanciful bits of millinery confection attached to a headband or clip — are just as traditional at the Kentucky Derby as ornately decorated large-brimmed hats. In Harry Craddock's "The Savoy Cocktail Book," that gold mine of classic recipes from 1930, I found a cocktail named the Fascinator, an anise-kissed riff on the martini: two parts gin, one part French vermouth and a couple of dashes of Pernod, garnished with a sprig of mint.

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For this recipe, I've added some flourishes of my own: muddling fresh mint to fully release its springy essence; swapping the vermouth for Lillet Blanc because its fruity notes play so nicely with gin; and finishing it with a few dashes of orange bitters, which help tie it all together. 

Ingredients:

Serving size: scales up or down

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  • 2 parts gin
  • 1 part Lillet Blanc
  • Pernod
  • Orange bitters
  • A handful of fresh mint, plus extra sprigs on stems for garnish

Gear:

You don't need any specialty equipment to mix a simple cocktail. Improvise with what you have. But here's what I keep at hand for this drink: 

Instructions:

Tuck cocktail glasses into the freezer for a quick chill while you mix this drink. In a cocktail shaker, muddle a handful of torn mint leaves with a gentle splash of Pernod. Add the ice, then gin, Lillet blanc and a few dashes of orange bitters. Shake, then strain with the fine mesh strainer — to keep all the mint leaf bits from clouding your drink — into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a lavish sprig of mint. 

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Variations:

Craddock's recipe calls for French vermouth, which martini lovers might prefer. (If you're carefully selecting good gins for your home bar, but your vermouths are an afterthought, rethink that strategy. Experiment with the good stuff, and find one you like.) Try it with Lillet Rosé for a pink twist. You can also experiment with different bitters to add subtle flourishes to this very remixable drink. 

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Erin Keane

Erin Keane is Salon's Editor in Chief.

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Cocktails Fascinator Gin Lillet Blanc Oracle Pour Pernod Recipe Spirits