Why Do People Drink Mint Juleps at the Kentucky Derby?

If you’re watching the Kentucky Derby, you’re probably doing it with a mint julep in your hand. But why?
A refreshing mint julep.
A refreshing mint julep. / Brent Hofacker / 500Px Plus via Getty Images

Whether you plan to enjoy the race from Churchill Downs or don an elaborate hat in the comfort of your own home, if you're watching the Kentucky Derby this weekend, you may find yourself sipping on a refreshing mint julep. But, why?

The drink—a cocktail traditionally composed of bourbon, sugar, water, and mint—has been a Kentucky favorite since long before Churchill Downs came into play. In fact, as far back as 1816, silver julep cups were given as prizes at Kentucky county fairs (a change from the stuffed animals they offer today). And before that, a julep was considered medicinal—a drink that was prescribed for stomach problems and sore throats.

Though mint juleps have likely been enjoyed at the Kentucky Derby since the beginning—legend has it that founder Meriwether Lewis Clark, Jr., planted mint for cocktails when he founded the track in 1875—the cocktail wasn’t declared the “official” Derby drink until 1938.

It was just a few years ago that the Derby switched to a more “authentic” version of the mint julep. For almost two decades, the 120,000 mint juleps served at the races were made with Early Times liquor. Based on the aging process, Early Times isn’t considered bourbon (just “Kentucky whisky”) in the U.S. In 2015, they switched to Old Forester, which is also owned by the Brown-Forman Corporation.

Even with the switch to “real” bourbon, what most revelers actually get is the Old Forester Ready-to-Serve Cocktail mix, not a handcrafted mint julep—unless you’re willing to pony up at least $1000. For more than a decade, Brown-Forman has served a special version of the drink made with Woodford Reserve small batch bourbon. It’ll set you back a grand, but hey, you get to keep the emerald-encrusted pewter cup—and proceeds will benefit the Backside Learning Center, a nonprofit organization providing support and resources for racetrack workers and their families.

If you're looking to drop even more cash, there's also a $5000 version of the drink which comes in a gold cup with 44 crystals.

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A version of this story ran in 2016; it has been updated for 2024.