The Greatest Two Minutes of Sports and all of its traditions is a yearly event some declare as a national holiday. The Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky is a long standing race of horses, fashion statements, fun, food and drink. Rounding out the festivities of betting on and cheering for a favorite horse, the day would not be complete without the drink of choice, the mint julep.
Starting in 1875, the Kentucky Derby adopted customs and the culture of Scotch-Irish immigrants that settled in the area of Kentucky during the 177o’s. Bringing their love for equines, food, fellowship and competition, the annual race was developed and has been a highlight ever since. Also during this time, new blends of alcohol were created by using the common resource of corn. Kentucky quickly became known for its fine whiskeys and bourbon. Bardstown is about 50 miles southwest of Lexington and is known as the Bourbon Capital of the World. The town and many area cities and villages have been a focal point of tourist attractions featuring festivals and tours of distilleries.
The oldest distillery in Kentucky is Woodford Reserve, located in Versailles, Kentucky. It is also the smallest distillery, but has claimed the honor of producing the official bourbon of the Kentucky Derby. It is closely tied the to the event and offers the premium mint julep at a premium price.
The traditional mint julep has been making its mark at the Kentucky Derby since 1938. The simple cocktail features mint leaves, sugar, crushed ice and bourbon. It has been a crowd pleaser for decades and is sold in mass quantities on the day of the Derby and at The Kentucky Oaks, the day before. An estimate of 120,000 mint juleps are served annually at the event usually in a souvenir cup costing about $11.
To serve that many drinks, it is impossible to make the elegant beverage on a one by one basis, which is desired. The official mint julep of the Kentucky derby is made with Early Times Mint Julep ready to serve cocktail mix. To be official and be accepted as the tasty and refreshing drink of choice, it has to be good. Early Times uses 10,000 bottles of their blend of bourbon and sugar syrup, plus 1,000 pounds of fresh spearmint and 60,000 pounds of ice to create the thousands of drinks.
The traditional way of mixing the mint julep is more expensive as straight bourbon is added separately. To make it even more special, the official bourbon of the Kentucky Derby, Woodford Reserve, has offered 89 custom made glasses. The number is significant for the years the race has been dubbed The Run for Roses. The winner of the Kentucky Derby receives a blanket of red roses at the closing ceremony and the much desired purse.
Woodford Reserve has pre-sold two designs of glasses for the mint juleps. At $1,000, 79 gold-plated cups with a hand engraved medallion of a horse and garland of roses were created. Ten gold-plated cups with a silver medallion were made for sale at $2,000. Woodford Reserve has added extra touches to its mint juleps with candied rose petals and ice made with rose water. The sweet syrup made from Bourbon Barrel Foods has been chosen to be used in the drinks at the Kentucky Derby.
At these prices, the special glass with the famous mint julep is serving as a fundraiser. Woodford Reserve will be donating proceeds to Old Friends Thoroughbred Retirement Center in Georgetown Kentucky. This location is for retired racehorses and $354,000 has already been raised.
When making mint juleps at home, the best method is to make a sweet syrup of mint leaves and sugar in advance. This helps to infuse the flavor and natural oil of the mint. By boiling two cups of water and two cups of sugar, add 6-8 springs of mint, cool and refrigerate over night in a sealed container. Simple syrup can also be purchased and used instead. The key to a great mint julep is the quality of the bourbon, of course.
The 14oth Kentucky Derby is underway with horses, hats and mint juleps. California Chrome is favored to win, but no matter the winner traditions will live on. As the band plays My Old Kentucky Home, hearts will soar, hats will fly and drinks will be in hand.
By: Roanne FitzGibbon