There are many storied and rich traditions that surround the Kentucky Derby. Traditions such as the playing of “My Old Kentucky Home” before the race, the famous Twin Spires overlooking the track, and the beautiful and extravagant hats the ladies display. Just as famous and woven into the history of the Kentucky Derby is a drink known as the mint julep.
The mint julep didn’t originate at historic Churchill Downs, but it’s alright if you think it did. Most people seem to believe that you can’t even get a mint julep if it’s not the first Saturday in May. But, the fact is, mint juleps have been around for quite some time. The origin of the drink remains hazy, as the first historical evidence of the drink may have been brought forth in print form by John Davis in a book published in 1803. Davis, who had his book published in London made mention of what appears to be the julep in this passage; “a dram of spirituous liquor that has mint steeped in it, taken by Virginians of a morning”. But, Davis didn’t mention exactly what spirit was being used. Was it vodka, gin, or bourbon? Without that knowledge, it probably makes better history, and surely more pleasing to Derby fans, to know that the drink probably originated in the southern United States in the 1700’s. Kentucky has always been a region where its inhabitants enjoyed horses and bourbon. Most residents of the upstart state were spread out and gathered at different times of the year and socialized around their horses and telling tales about their whiskey or bourbon and the drinks they made with the spirits. The mint julep’s fame was likely spread due to Kentucky Senator Henry Clay introducing the drink to our nation’s capital, as he liked to enjoy them at the historic Willard Hotel, in Washington D.C.
The mint julep is a fairly basic concoction, consisting of Kentucky bourbon, sugar, water, fresh mint, and crushed ice. Traditionally, the drink is to be consumed from a silver cup, but most of the 120,000 juleps will be consumed from official Kentucky Derby glasses at Churchill Downs in the two days that consist of the Kentucky Oaks and Derby. The mint julep was first promoted by Churchill Downs in 1938 and has since become the mixed drink of choice for most patrons of the track, as its sweet mix appeals to the ladies, while the robust, yet understated flavor of bourbon pleases the men. If you can be at Churchill Downs for the “fastest two minutes in sports”, be sure to grab your bartender early, as the drinks sell furiously just before the horses take their positions at the post. If you are at home enjoying the Derby with friends, whip up a batch of juleps, as you will surely want to savor Kentucky’s greatest event with a drink that has become synonymous with the Run for the Roses!