Derby's mint julep
Derby’s mint julep

On Friday, the old Charlie’s on Webster will make its debut as Derby, a new bar that endorses three of my favorite things in life: horse racing, bourbon, and Kentucky. Derby is another project from the folks at Big Onion Tavern Group (404 Wine Bar Co., Jack’s Bar and Grill, the Irish Oak), and word has it that a couple of the silent investors have a special affinity for the South.

A peek through Derby’s windows last night revealed an almost ready space with lots of comfy black booths, 24 beer taps, and a smattering of miniature jockeys standing at attention. The gorgeous, ornate wooden bar appears to be a spiffed-up version of the same one that graced Charlie’s, and I don’t blame Derby for keeping it—not only is it pretty, it doesn’t look easy to move.

Earlier this week, I asked general manager Shawn Randall how Derby will set itself apart from other offerings on this Lincoln Park stretch near DePaul. He said the difference will be Derby’s attention to Southern hospitality.

For instance, there are two-dozen beers on tap, and yes, most of them are craft—but beer snobbery is not the order of the day at Derby. “I don’t want anyone to get scared away and think they can’t get their favorite domestics,” Randall says. In other words, Amstel Light and Half Acre drinkers are welcome.

The cocktail menu ($8 to $13) sounds like a Southern summer’s afternoon: a mint julep (the classic Kentucky Derby drink), the Arlington (Bulleit bourbon, maple syrup, grapefruit juice), the Magnolia Martini (Tito’s vodka and stuffed olives), and the Afternoon Delight made with Stoli Strawberry, lemonade and house-brewed sweet tea. Sounds gulpable, but special note to Derby’s tea-brewer: Don’t get too carried away with the sugar.

If you’re an infield type of drinker, look for the selection of 10 canned beers (Ska True Blonde Ale, Red Racer Pale Ale, Fat Tire, and more), a trend that Randall says is gaining momentum because more people are realizing that canned beer stays fresher longer because, unlike bottled beers, there’s no exposure to light.

On the food side of the menu, there’s a classic Kentucky Hot Brown ($14), which I’m looking forward to comparing with the real deal from the Brown Hotel in Louisville, and a fried Twinkie ($6), something I can say I never ate as a kid in Kentucky.

Randall says he’s been to the Kentucky Derby at least a dozen times, and he based the 16-bottle bourbon list on suggestions from his dad, who lives just outside of Louisville. Come the first Saturday in May, Randall says we can expect a raucous Derby viewing event that has the potential to evolve to into a block party complete with a huge outdoor screen—but it all depends on our fickle Northern weather. Racing fans, start placing your bets.