Kentucky Derby: How the mint julep became the race’s official drink

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDKY) — The mint julep is almost as essential to the Kentucky Derby as the thoroughbreds running for the roses.

It’s “bourbon, mint, and what we call simple syrup that adds that sweetness to the mint julep,” said Chris Goodlett, senior director of curatorial and education affairs at the Kentucky Derby Museum.

On Derby weekend, nearly 120,000 mint juleps will be served. This requires more than 10,000 bottles of bourbon, 1,000 pounds of mint leaves, and 60,000 pounds of ice.

But how did the mint julep become the official drink of the Kentucky Derby?

“Mint juleps have really been a tradition with the Kentucky Derby really ever since the beginning,” Goodlett said. “When we started in 1875, at that time, especially in states that were in the South, mint juleps can be a more common drink. We can go back to newspapers in the … mid-1800s, late-1800s, find references to juleps. So there’s every reason to think they were here as part of the earliest Kentucky Derby.”

The tradition, therefore, was likely born very early on.

kentucky derby mint julep glass
A Kentucky Derby fan holds a mint julep in a commemorative glass prior to the running of the 143rd Kentucky Derby on May 06, 2017, at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky. (Photo by Aaron Josefczyk/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Seeing the value of the mint julep, Churchill Downs took a step forward, capitalizing on the idea and creating a souvenir julep glass that changes from year to year.

“It really starts to become a kind of entrenched tradition as we get to the mid-20th century,” Goodlett said. “In 1938, there were water glasses in the clubhouse that were not really intended as souvenirs, not thought to be souvenirs. But Churchill Downs realized that people were taking them home. So hence that mint julep tradition was born as far as the glasses.”

Beginning in 1939 and continuing for the next 85 years, the Derby’s official mint julep glasses have ranged in design and price, but have become one of the most well-known souvenirs of the event.

“The mint julep glass is just one of those traditions,” Goodlett said. “One of those things, if you’re coming to the Kentucky Derby, if it’s that bucket list item for you … that julep glass is just something you can easily take back with you as that tangible reminder you’ve been to the Kentucky Derby.”

This year’s glass showcases the 150th anniversary of the Derby, and is decorated with the outlines of red roses.

The 2024 Kentucky Derby will take place at Churchill Downs on Saturday, May 4, with post time scheduled for 6:57 p.m. EST.


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