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The Secret History of the Kentucky Derby's Iconic Cocktail

The mint julep is all but synonymous with the Kentucky Derby. How exactly did that happen? It's a long story that starts in the Antebellum South.
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"Thousands of raving, stumbling drunks, getting angrier and angrier as they lose more and more money. By mid-afternoon they'll be guzzling mint juleps with both hands and vomiting on each other between races." -- Hunter S. Thompson, "The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved;" June, 1970

On May 17th, 1875, more than 10,000 people gathered in Louisville, Kentucky to see a three-year-old horse named Aristides win the inaugural Kentucky Derby. Somewhere on the grounds that would become known as Churchill Downs, Meriweather L. Clark, the Derby's founder, watched the race amongst friends and business associates, all of whom were served—or at least offered—a cocktail of bourbon, sugar, mint, and a splash of water.


Clark lived until April of 1899, long enough to see 14 Kentucky Derbies. The mint juleps he served to his guests at lunch would become a tradition as longstanding as the race itself. They would become part of the texture of the Derby, part of what makes the first Saturday in May something bigger than just a sporting event—bigger than the two minutes around the track.

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The Derby is an American institution, a lingering remnant of the Antebellum South. The Commonwealth of Kentucky was a slave-state during the time leading up to the Civil War, but never actually joined the Confederacy. Visitors can go to Churchill Downs and take in what they envision of the Old South without actually visiting the Old South.

"Since the early 20th century, the Derby has been the beneficiary of this vague notion that Kentucky is 'in' the south, but not 'of' the south," wrote Jamie Nicholson in his book Kentucky Derby: How the Run for the Roses Became America's Premier Sporting Event. "The Derby became a place where people, particularly from the North and Midwest, could come and experience 'the South' without having to travel very far, either geographically or culturally."

Now errybody in the club get twisted. Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

The popular cultural image of Kentucky and its hillbilly residents isn't favorable or even fair, but the Derby is different, rooted in an old romanticism: the singing of "My Old Kentucky Home," the women's hats, the antebellum architecture, the iconic twin spires of Churchill Downs, and the drinking. And it's the drinking that evens out the socioeconomic disparity and geographic diversity of the spectators. After all, mint juleps are just another part of the old time fantasy.


So how and when exactly did the mint julep become synonymous with the Kentucky Derby?

For starters, the bourbon part is probably obvious. According to a 1964 declaration by the United States Congress, bourbon is the only uniquely American spirit. While the history of bourbon is not well-documented and the etymology of its name comes with debate—some believe it's genesis lies in its initial production in Bourbon County; others believe it was named for New Orleans's Bourbon Street, where it sold quite well—we declare the drink distinctly Kentuckian.

Chris Morris, master distiller for Woodford Reserve (the official bourbon of the Kentucky Derby) and historian of American spirits, says racing and whiskey making both got their Kentucky starts in the early 1770s. The earliest references, dating back to the 18th century, refer to the julep as a prescription for stomach sickness; the drink also appears in early 19th century literature as a great way to get the day started.

Mike Veach, bourbon historian at the Filson Historical Society in Louisville and author of Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey, agrees that the julep "actually started as a breakfast drink to sweeten the morning shot of whiskey that was an 'eye opener' for the early settlers in Kentucky."

This guy, this is the guy. Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

According to legend, it was sometime in between the Madison and Fillmore Administrations that Kentucky Senator Henry Clay introduced the mint julep to the Round Robin Bar in Washington D.C., just steps away from the White House, which created a northern affection for the drink. To this day, it remains a status symbol for the elite even in the north, where the drink is served every spring at the Chief Marshal's Spread, a Harvard University commencement event for "honorands, members of the Governing Boards, senior faculty members, and alumni guests," according to a 2013 Boston Magazine article. The julep was also William Faulkner's go-to cocktail. And as everything went to hell in the final chapters of Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, all the fictional Louisvillian Daisy Buchanan wanted was a place to "have a mint julep."


But despite the drink's long history, and despite its presence at the race itself in the early days, the connection between the mint julep and the Kentucky Derby remains something of a mystery. The drink didn't truly become officially associated with the Derby until well into the 20th Century—not coincidentally, around the time the souvenir glass appeared in the last 1930s. Nicholson believes the drink serves as a symbol.

"The mint julep was both an illustration and a reinforcement of [the Old South] connection, which developed in the early 20th century when romantic notions of the Old South were becoming popular in American culture," he said.

It's true that we do tend to eat and drink in relationship to where we are. It's why we drink rum in the Bahamas or seek out hole-in-the-wall taco joints in San Diego. But Bourbon is largely an acquired taste, unlike fruity boat drinks or carnitas. So when visitors come to Churchill Downs, they are getting a product that is—like the vision of the Old South surrounding them—somewhat watered down.

"The fact that the mint juleps are sugary, minty, and packaged in a nostalgic collector's glass make them more appealing to people who might not otherwise drink whiskey," said Nicholson.

Like anything in 2015, authenticity must be sacrificed for the sake of commercialism. The mint julep is a labor-intensive drink, and manufactured in abundance for the tourists at the race. Most bourbon drinkers and non-bourbon drinkers probably wouldn't order one at the bar any other time, but both are compelled to order at least one as part of the experience. Derby-goers can even purchase mint juleps for $1,000 or $2,000, the difference not in the heavy-handed pour, but in the silver cup, a gold-plated horse, and roses etched onto the side.

It's been estimated that 120,000 mint juleps will be sold in the two-day period spanning the Kentucky Oaks and the Kentucky derby. Maybe Thompson's assessment of julep consumption is hyperbole, maybe not. Maybe it depends on where you sit.