Why We Drink Mint Juleps at the Kentucky Derby

When you think of the Kentucky Derby, what comes to mind? Fancy hats? Singing “My Old Kentucky Home?” The Call to the Post? Or how about an ice cold mint julep? Hopefully the latter. No cocktail is so closely attached to a sporting event like the mint julep and the Kentucky Derby.

You don’t need to be at Churchill Downs to enjoy a mint julep (although we highly recommend it). No matter if you’re in the racetrack infield, sitting on Millionaire’s Row, or throwing a Kentucky Derby party at your bar or restaurant, no Derby weekend is complete without this minty concoction.

Let’s examine the history of the mint julep and its connection to the fastest two minutes in sports.

What’s In a Mint Julep?

The ingredients of a mint julep are fairly simple – bourbon, mint leaf, sugar, and crushed ice. Although commonly served in highball glasses today, there are still those who use the traditional silver or pewter cups, a practice that dates back to the early 1800s.

How is a mint julep prepared? Let southern novelist Walker Percy, via Business Insider, eloquently explain:

You need excellent Bourbon whiskey; rye or Scotch will not do. Put half an inch of sugar in the bottom of glass and merely dampen it with water. Next, very quickly — and here is the trick in the procedure — crush your ice, actually powder it, preferably in a towel with a wooden mallet, so quickly that it remains dry, and, slipping two sprigs of fresh mint against the inside of the glass, cram the ice right to the brim, packing it with your hand. Finally, fill the glass, which apparently has no room left for anything else, with Bourbon, the older the better, and grate a bit of nutmeg on the top. The glass will frost immediately. Then settle back in your chair for half an hour of cumulative bliss.

Thirsty yet?

History of the Mint Julep

The mint julep got its start in the southern United States, surprisingly, not in Kentucky, but in Virginia. Like many cocktail origins, this one began as a medicinal concoction, using brandy, sugar, and mint to soothe stomach aches and sore throats. It wasn’t until a brandy shortage that bourbon whiskey took its rightful place in the mint julep. And where is the best bourbon made? That’s right, Kentucky.

The mint julep was viewed as a drink for the elites, as it required ice and a silver cup, both luxuries in the south in the 1800s. Over time, the cocktail popularity reached across all classes, not just the wealthy.

The Mint Julep’s Connection to the Kentucky Derby

According to the official Kentucky Derby website, almost 120,000 mint juleps are served on Kentucky Derby weekend at Churchill Downs. To put it in perspective, that’s 1,000 pounds of mint and 30 tons of ice! So how did the relationship begin?

Churchill Downs was looking for a signature beverage to coincide with the popular horse race. No cocktail fit a state better than the mint julep did with Kentucky. It was in 1938 when the mint julep became the Kentucky Derby’s signature drink for a mere 38 cents. Since the beginning, the cocktail has been served in souvenir glasses, varying from year to year, from glass to sterling silver to gold.

Today, mint juleps at Churchill Downs are served from $11 a cup to a 24-carat gold plated cup with a silver straw for $1000. That money is put to good use, as all the proceeds for the drink go to charities mostly focused on animal neglect, including ones dedicated to old thoroughbreds. It’s safe to say mint juleps became as popular as the first leg of the Triple Crown itself.

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