MUNDANE MYSTERIES: Why People Drink Mint Juleps For The Kentucky Derby

Whether you enjoyed the race with us at Longshots, or you just put on an extravagant hat in the comfort of your own home, chances are that, if you watched the Kentucky Derby this year, you probably sipped a refreshing mint julep at some point. But, why is the mint julep the official Kentucky Derby race day beverage?

For the uninitiated, the mint julep cocktail is traditionally made up of bourbon, sugar, water, and mint. It’s been a favorite in Kentucky since long before Churchill Downs came into being. In fact, in 1816, silver julep cups were given as prizes at Kentucky county fairs. (The stuffed animals they offer today are a huge downgrade if you ask me). Before that, a “julep” was considered a medicinal tonic that was “prescribed” for stomach problems & sore throats.

It’s said that the Kentucky Derby’s founder, Meriwether Lewis Clark, Jr., planted mint for cocktails when he founded the track in 1875, so mint juleps have likely been enjoyed there since the beginning. But it wasn’t until 1938 that the cocktail was declared the “official” Derby drink. And, it was only a few years ago that the Derby actually switched to a more “authentic” version of the mint julep. For nearly twenty years, the mint juleps served at the races were made with Early Times alcohol. Because of the aging process, Early Times isn’t actually considered bourbon, just “Kentucky whisky”. So, they switched to Old Forester, (actual bourbon, by definition) in 2015.

Even with the switch to “genuine” bourbon, what most race-goers really get is the Old Forester Ready-to-Serve Cocktail mix, not a handcrafted mint julep. You only get the real thing if you’re willing to plop down $1000 for the special version of the drink, made with small batch Woodford Reserve bourbon. Sure, it may set you back a grand, but hey, at least you get to keep the pewter cup it comes in, right? Plus, proceeds benefit the Project to Protect African American Turf History, a nonprofit that preserves the history of Black jockeys & tells their stories. (Oh, and there’s also a $2500 version of the drink which comes in a gold cup with a silver sipping straw…but, if you’re like me, you’re just fine with the ol’ “ready-to-serve” cocktail in a plastic cup & thousands of bucks left safely in your pocket.)

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