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A History of the Kentucky Derby's Favorite Drink—the Mint Julep

A mint julep stand at Churchill Downs
A mint julep stand at Churchill Downs

The Kentucky Derby is steeped in tradition—and those customs include what people drink on the first Saturday of May.

The mint julep has been the traditional drink of the Derby for nearly a century, according to Churchill Downs. The racetrack serves about 120,000 of the cocktails—made with syrup, mint and bourbon—during the Oaks and Derby.

But why is this drink, of all drinks, the traditional cocktail of American horse racing's biggest day?

The answer may be found in the historic relationship between thoroughbred racing and the bourbon industry, according to Michael Veach, a noted Louisville historian of bourbon.

"A lot of the early horse breeders were also distillers," he said.

"Bourbon and horses just seem to go together."

In the late 1700s and early 1800s, especially in Kentucky, the mint julep was a breakfast drink—an "eye-opener" for people just waking up, he said, noting that the "bourbons" of those days weren't of the quality of today's drink.

The cocktail is now closely associated with the Derby, but in early days it was considered a Southern thing.

And, as time went on, the realm of mint julep enthusiasts narrowed to Kentucky, Veach said.

"It's hard to get a mint julep any time other than Derby time—you can still find some restaurants that will do it, but only in Kentucky," he said.

This year, the mint juleps served at Churchill Downs will be slightly different. For starters, they'll be made with an actual bourbon. Since the early 1980s, the racetrack's mint juleps were made with a spirit that was not technically a bourbon—Early Times. Veach said Early Times in in the '80s transitioned to being an American whiskey made using used barrels.

This year, the track's mint juleps will be made with Old Forester, perhaps the most Louisville of bourbons, he said.

Veach said the Derby is "very important" to the mint julep. But, without the Derby, the mint julep would likely have faded into cocktail obscurity—one of those drinks enthusiasts pull out of ancient recipe books, but nothing more.

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For Derby first-timers, a mint julep may be a must to get the full experience. (Here's a recent Filson Historical Society blog post about a classic recipe.)

But let's say the drink isn't your thing.

"I personally like Henry Watterson's recipe for the mint julep as the best. He says you get up and you get some of finest mint, some of the purest sugar, some fresh spring water and you get you a real fine bottle of bourbon," Veach said.

"And then you lay all this stuff out on the table—and you sweep all of it except for the bourbon in the garbage can and drink the bourbon."

Joseph Lord is the online managing editor for WFPL.

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