Mint Julep: A History Of The Derby’s Drink

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This May 5th and 6th, during the 143rd Kentucky Derby, 320 bartenders will douse 232,000 pounds of crushed ice with 19,200 liters of bourbon and 4,000 pounds of mint, ultimately serving up approximately 127,000 mint juleps to around 160,000 thirsty Derby and Oaks race attendees.

It’s impossible to think of another cocktail and sporting event so closely interwoven as the potent, leafy Southern sipper and America’s most famous horse race.

“The mint julep has probably been with us since the very first Kentucky Derby,” says Chris Goodlett, senior curator of collections at the Kentucky Derby Museum, which is adjacent to the Churchill Downs racetrack in Louisville, Kentucky.

Juleps — mint and sugar stirred with crushed ice and spirits like bourbon and rum — were a staple of genteel society below the Mason-Dixon line since the early 1800s, guzzled by Virginian farmers in the morning as a restorative.

The link between juleps and the racetrack dates back to at least the 1820s, when references appear to sterling silver julep cups being awarded as trophies to first-place jockeys. “It ties together two of Kentucky’s most well-known industries: horse racing and bourbon,” says Goodlett.

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