Kentucky Buck Vs Maid: What's The Difference Between The 2 Cocktails?

Kentucky Buck Maid cocktails
Kentucky Buck Maid cocktails - Static Media / Shutterstock / Instagram

Modern bartenders are living in the golden age for cocktails. There are dozens if not hundreds of classic cocktails that bar patrons love to enjoy. Of course, that also means they need to have a world-class memory to keep up with them all, but the payoff is worth the price. Classic cocktails have stood the test of time and have survived on menus to this day because of their strengths, but modern classics don't have the great weight of time to rest their laurels on. The Kentucky buck and the Kentucky maid are two modern classic cocktails that are so ubiquitous at this point it's hard to believe that they are new inventions. But with such similar names, it's hard to tell them apart if you aren't already familiar.

Despite their appellations, neither of these drinks are from Kentucky. Calling a cocktail a "Kentucky something" has to do with the ingredients — in this case bourbon. It's the same for vodka drinks, which will often use the title "Moscow something" to give a hint to the drinker that what they're ordering uses vodka. Not all cocktails use this system of categorization. There are more poetically titled drinks like the blood and sand, the corpse reviver No. 2, or the last word. There's almost something dry about categorizing cocktails with not-so-secret code names belying their ingredients, but at the same time, it gives mixology an air of professionalism and reliability that feels on brand for the movement as a whole.

Read more: The 40 Absolute Best Cocktails That Feature Only 2 Ingredients

What Is A Kentucky Buck?

strawberry lemon drink
strawberry lemon drink - Caterina Trimarchi/Shutterstock

The Kentucky buck was created in 2008 by Erick Castro, who's famous today for his bars in San Diego. At the time, Castro was working in San Francisco at a place called Bourbon & Branch, but it wasn't until he brought it to Rickhouse that the drink took off.

The buck is a family of cocktails that includes mules (like the Moscow mule), which is typified by the use of ginger beer or ginger ale. So when you read the name Kentucky buck, the idea is that you would be able to identify that this drink uses bourbon (because of Kentucky) and ginger beer (because of buck) — which it does. The full list of ingredients includes bourbon, ginger beer, lemon juice, simple syrup, muddled strawberry, and angostura bitters. What you get is a spicy bitterness that plays off the sweetness of the bourbon and strawberries for a drink that's both naughty and nice.

How the drink actually comes out will depend a lot on where you order it. As with most classic cocktails, there is a central theme that bartenders will work around depending on what ingredients are available, what price the bar is asking, and how much volume they're dealing with. A busy dive bar with dirt cheap prices likely won't use real strawberry and will probably substitute ginger ale for ginger beer, whereas a high-end cocktail bar may swap out ginger beer for fresh pressed ginger juice and club soda.

What Is A Kentucky Maid?

whiskey mint cocktail
whiskey mint cocktail - Brent Hofacker/Shutterstock

The Kentucky maid is credited to the famous New York bartender Sam Ross, who was one of the original bartenders at the bar that changed the world — Milk & Honey. Unfortunately, that bar is no longer open, but Sam Ross runs one of New York's best speakeasies Attaboy out of the old Milk & Honey location alongside Michael McIlroy.

The maid is another family of cocktails, all of which are rightfully credited to Ross. A Kentucky maid is made with bourbon, muddled cucumber, lime, simple syrup, and muddled mint leaves. The lime, mint, and cucumber are what make a maid a maid. A Mexican maid would be made with tequila, while a Polish maid uses vodka. However, the Kentucky version wasn't the first member of the family to be born. That honor belongs to the old maid, which uses gin. Legend has it that Ross originally wanted to call the old maid the ol' biddy, but Sasha Petraska (the legend behind Milk & Honey) struck it down. It is pretty funny to think of the alternative timeline where we would be drinking Polish biddies if the name had stuck.

Similar to the Kentucky buck, you're going to have a different experience depending on where you order. Cheap bars are unlikely to be stocking cucumber, and many won't be carrying mint, either. If that's the case, they're unlikely to even attempt it since the mint is such a key element of the drink.

An Herbal Cocktail Is Different From A Spicy Cocktail

ginger beer bartender
ginger beer bartender - Pixel-Shot/Shutterstock

If we were to try these two drinks side by side, nobody would think that they taste all that similar despite having similar names. That's because the flavor profiles of both drinks are wildly different. That difference can be simplified to the difference between an herbal profile and a spicy profile.

A high-quality Kentucky buck using fresh ginger juice will provide a punchy, spicy bite that's perfect for people who enjoy bitter, earthy, or bold flavors. We don't mean spicy like a jalapeño. We mean spicy like ginger or black pepper. The addition of strawberry does soften the cocktail's bite but not enough to turn the ship around. Ginger beer is equally bold, but Kentucky bucks made with ginger ale will be noticeably less flavorful because you're mostly getting the sweetness of the sugar while the light ginger taste gets drowned out by the bourbon.

Apart from the main spirit, the Kentucky maid is getting most of its flavor from the mint. We normally associate the herb with mint juleps and mojitos, but they aren't the only ones putting this super ingredient to good use. Muddled mint gives Kentucky maids a bright flavor profile, and muddled cucumber is a subtle supporting actor that's criminally underrated. Instead of bold and rich, here we get light and refreshing notes. If you're planning on whipping up a Kentucky maid, don't forget to smack the mint leaves before you add them to the drink.

The Two Cocktails Make Use Of Different Citrus

bartender squeezing citrus
bartender squeezing citrus - Sinti Lu/Shutterstock

Citrus is such a fundamental part of mixology that sour ingredients are a central pillar of the bartender's golden ratio. Take a look at any bar menu, and you'll find lemon and lime dominating the playing field above every other ingredient except ice. But lemons and limes are not typically interchangeable. The fact that the Kentucky buck uses lemon and the Kentucky maid uses lime is not a useless bit of trivia. The choice of citrus reveals more about a cocktail than you may realize.

Take the Kentucky buck, for example. What you may not realize is that one of its relatives — the Moscow mule — uses lime, whereas the Kentucky buck uses lemon. It's quite puzzling that two drinks in the same family, using similar ingredients (such as ginger beer), would arrive at two different types of citrus and yet here we are. Lemon and ginger may be great in a penicillin, but that's a completely different drink. It's so off-base that many people will substitute lime in a Kentucky buck anyway. It's possible that the addition of strawberry in the drink is what caused Castro to switch the citrus, but that's speculation.

Pairing lime with mint, on the other hand, is a match made in heaven. All the major players in the mint cocktail scene use lime. There are some exceptions (like the south side cocktail), but by and large, the Kentucky maid plays it straight.

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