With the Belmont Stakes looming this Saturday, bartenders are readying their bourbon bottles. Each of the Triple Crown races has its own official bourbon-based cocktail — the mint julep for the Kentucky Derby and the black-eyed Susan for the Preakness Stakes. For the last leg of the Triple Crown, the Belmont Stakes, that drink is a fuschia-tinged blend of bourbon, pomegranate juice and lemonade served over ice, with an orange twist (at least at Belmont Park).
It wasn't always so.The Belmont Stakes has had a rotating roster of representative drinks. Until 1997, it was a possibly headache-inducing combination of vodka, peach schnapps and orange juice called the White Carnation, whose name was a nod to race's official flower. That year, then-Rainbow Room bartender (and drinks author) Dale DeGroff came up with a replacement — a drink that combined whiskey, sherry, citrus juices, pimento bitters and mint that he called the Belmont Breeze; DeGroff called it "an old-fashioned whiskey punch."
In 2011, the relatively unfussy Belmont Jewel began its reign; it was created by executive chef Drew Revella of Centerplate, Belmont Park's concessionaire. Beside the thousands of Jewels that will be served at the track (made with Woodford Reserve, the park's official bourbon) the cocktail crops up as a sort of weekend-long special at some Long Island bars.
"Being that we're so close to the track, we serve them in the spirit of the whole thing," said Chris Vella, bar manager at Park Place Restaurant & Bar in Floral Park, about two miles from Belmont Park, and where jockeys sometimes decamp for dinner (though not necessarily this weekend).
Park Place's bar uses a house-blended lemonade of fresh juice and simple syrup for their Belmont Jewel, and garnishes each drink with an orange peel and a cherry. Despite the temptation to change up on such a simple drink, Vella said the formula is solid. "[The Jewel's] been around awhile for a reason. We've tried it with pomegranate liquor, and it can change the drink, so we keep it traditional."
At The Carltun in Eisenhower Park, managing bartender Charlie Tesoro said the cocktail will start pouring on Friday night, and anyone who asks for one during the weekend will be gifted one free Belmont Jewel. "There are not too many whiskey and bourbon drinks that work in the heat and humidity of late spring and early summer, but this is very refreshing," Tesoro said. He admires its simplicity, as well. "The fewer things you throw into a drink, the better."
While the official Belmont Jewel recipe (below) calls for shaking and then straining the cocktail into a rocks glass, Tesoro advocates for pouring the entire shaken drink, ice and all, into the glass, thereby retaining the foam that forms during agitation.
I second that method. I also discovered something else about the Jewel during a trial run of blending them: While bourbon is classically American, I actually preferred it with reposado tequila as a base. That may be blasphemy, but since the Belmont's official drink seems to morph over time, why not?
The Belmont Jewel
1 1/2 ounces bourbon (alternatively, opt for aged tequila)
1 ounce pomegranate juice
2 ounces lemonade
Lemon, orange twist and/or cherry for garnish
Fill a shaker with ice, and add bourbon, pomegranate juice and lemonade. Shake hard until chilled, about 20 seconds, and strain into an ice-filled tumbler. For extra frothiness, crack open the shaker and spoon some foam over your drink, or just tip the entire thing into the glass. Garnish and serve.