SportsRace to the Derby


History of the mint julep: a Kentucky Derby tradition

Posted at 1:43 PM, May 01, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-03 19:05:46-04

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (LEX 18) — Race-goers usually have a strong feeling about mint juleps as they either love them or hate them. Regardless, the minty drinks are a Kentucky Derby staple.

"Mint juleps are very old," said Jessica Whitehead, curator of collections at the Kentucky Derby Museum. "There's some great war letters of where doctors are suggesting that patients should take a mint julep in the morning to help them out with their constitution."


Post-war, the drinks were part of southern society.

"The mint julep was served at the first Kentucky Derby, just as it would have been served many places in the South during that period," Whitehead said. "And mint was grown on the grounds here at Churchill Downs in 1875. It was really just a part of the culture at the time and so naturally became part of the Derby."

But it was the Derby that put bourbon in the mint julep.

"That's a Kentucky specialty," Whitehead said. "We made the mint julep become synonymous with bourbon because bourbon is synonymous with Kentucky."

It is a Kentucky and Derby specialty that remains a first-Saturday-in-May must-have nearly 150 years later.

"The Kentucky Derby is such a bucket list item for so many people and within that bucket list, there's a smaller bucket list of what you have to do at the Kentucky Derby. And yeah, the mint julep's part of that," Whitehead said.

Not only drinking a mint julep but also collecting the commemorative glasses.

"These collectibles really didn't start gathering steam until the administrators at Churchill Downs noticed people were taking water glasses and souvenirs from the clubhouse," explained Whitehead. "So, they decided they were going to try it out and say let's make a souvenir glass, they started doing that in the late 30s and early 40s. And it really caught on and it's become this major collectible today."