Combine bourbon, mint, and sugar and then stir in the most famous horse race in the world, and you have a tradition that goes back years and our first cocktail to be given its very own episode.
Sponsored by Kentucky Tourism, our episode today is all about the Mint Julep and how it found its way to being THE official cocktail of the Kentucky Derby. I am joined by Stacey Yates, the Vice President of Marketing and Communications for the city of Louisville, the home of the Kentucky Derby, and a city I love.
Have you ever been to Kentucky? It’s best known for its famous bourbon and legendary horse country, but the Bluegrass State offers so much more, including a world of outdoor adventure, an explosive culinary scene, fascinating cultural heritage sites, and a vibrant art and music scene.
Did you know it has the longest known cave system in the world, pristine lakes and attractions, such as the Muhammad Ali Center, African American Heritage Trails, and the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame and Museum? I loved it, and I know that Kentucky invites you to come visit, listen, and explore. You can discover the Bluegrass State by visiting, www.kentuckytourism.com
On today’s episode, you will discover:
- What is the official Bourbon of the Kentucky Derby Mint Julep
- Who won the first Kentucky Derby
- Why the Mint Julep is served in a Silver Cup
- What is in the $1000 Mint Julep
- The best way to serve the Mint Julep at home
Please enjoy this transcript of my interview with Stacey. Just remember that I own the copyright in and to all content in and transcripts of Lush Life podcast, with all rights reserved, as well as my right of publicity. So if you want to use any of this, please email me!
This transcript is sponsored by:
Susan: I’m so excited to have you on the show, but I feel like I should be wearing a hat, because we’re going to be talking about the Kentucky Derby and the Mint Julep and how they fit in together. So, please introduce yourself and then let’s get right to the Mint Julep.
Stacey: Sure. Well, first of all, I’m thrilled to be with you. These are probably two of my favorite topics and that’ll become evident, I think, throughout our conversation. My name is Stacey Yates and I am the Vice President of Marketing and Communications for a company called Global Tourism, which is our tourism marketing agency here for the city of Louisville, otherwise known as the Derby city or the Bourbon City. I’ve been doing this for quite a while, but previously to this my job was at the Kentucky Derby Festival. So, I know my way a little bit around the actual Kentucky Derby and, of course, its most famous drink, the Mint Julep
Susan: Great. Now I think we have to start with a little bit of a history of the Kentucky Derby.
Stacey: Absolutely. The first Derby was actually held in 1875. It is the longest annually held sporting event in North America, we’re quite proud of that. Even during COVID, it was one of the only events that was still held within the calendar year. It was pushed from its traditional May running to a September running last year.
This is as close as we’ve ever had two Derbys back to back, when it’s going to be run this year, but started in 1875 and it was actually inspirated by the Epsom Derby. It was the grandson of William Clark of Lewis and Clark fame, the famous explorers of the West here in America.
It was his grandson, Colonel Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr, who had gone to the Epsom Derby and some other races in France, when he was in Europe. He loved the idea of this and he purchased some land from his uncles, the Churchills, John and Henry Churchill, in the 1870s and formed the Louisville Jockey Club.
This was where the first Derby was held, on the grounds where historic Churchill Downs is today, but it wasn’t called that. Then it was called the Louisville Jockey Club and the first winner of that race was Aristides. It’s still at Churchill Downs today. You can go in and they’ll always have Aristides on one plaque and then they’ll have the current Derby winner on the other.
Famously or, well, not so famously until more recent years, it was a black jockey, who won that first Derby; his name was Oliver Lewis. In fact, we’re just now starting to tell these stories more in America that the sport was dominated by black jockeys within its first 20 years in existence. This was a story that was not told for many years, but we’re really bringing that back to light.
In fact, there’s a whole new tour at the Kentucky Derby Museum where you can go back in time and relive those great tales from actors who are portraying these jockeys. So there’s a lot of history there and it’s been run ever since. The Mint Julep really didn’t start, even though the Mint Julep has a much longer history. It wouldn’t be introduced into Kentucky Derby lore until 1938, but we have been drinking and toasting Mint Juleps at the Kentucky Derby officially since 1938.
Susan: All right, now to go back to the Mint Julep itself, can you tell me a little bit of the history of that cocktail itself?
Stacey: Sure. It’s kind of like pimento cheese is in the state that many people were probably making it around the same time in the South. It’s just one of those things that is in the Southern canon, if you will. That’s the story behind the Mint Julep. The actual word Julep, it is traced, they think, maybe to julepe, which is of Spanish, Arabic, or Persian descent.
Julepe meant rosewater and they think it was just medicinal. Back then, you mixed spirits with something herbal and that was called a julepe. So then in America, they did have spirits and some of those early cocktails were made by mixing herbs and sugar with some of these spirits. They were not quite the spirits that we know today, they were maybe not as tasty.
So you did want to mix things with them to make it a little tastier.
So the story that I’ve heard goes, that in this part of the South, actually Kentucky was once part of the larger state of Virginia, before Thomas Jefferson granted it to the Commonwealth. But this region, we had a lot of horse trainers and this is why the tie to the Derby. They would get up very early to train their horses and they wanted a refreshing morning drink. So they would add the sugar and then the mint, since mint was a native plant here and it grows very popularly. So they would infuse the mint and the sugar into their whiskey. And this became, over time, the Mint Julep.
So that was this morning drink that you might have if you were associated with the horses. I think it was a tradition all those years as people were racing horses in a lot of places, but always this annual Kentucky Derby. It wouldn’t be until 1903 when a gentleman by the name of Colonel Matt Winn would become involved with Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby.
He was kind of the PT Barnum of his day. I’m told he was a great marketer and it would be during his time that the Kentucky Derby would grow to a more national prominence. Then certainly by the 1930’s, it got international prominence, but it wouldn’t be until 1938, that Churchill would actually name it the official drink of the Kentucky Derby.
I don’t know how many Mint Juleps are gone through in the entire state of Kentucky, much more than this. Just at Churchill Downs alone, because they have a way to track these things, they know how much ice and mint they’re supplying, they say that they make 120,000 Mint Juleps during Kentucky Derby weekend alone.
Susan: Just the weekend? Well, let me tell you, I would much prefer to have a Mint Julep than orange juice in the morning. I love the idea that that was the morning drink.
Stacey: Right. Right. And so also in 1938, another tradition started that I think is kind of cool, the official Derby glass. I’m not sure when they started recording the names of the horses. It certainly wasn’t that first year, but now to this day, the Derby glass will have all of the previous winners of the previous Derbys on the glass and they’re highly collectible, those Kentucky Derby glasses.
Susan: Oh, so the Derby Glass is a commemorative glass. Where do you get that?
Stacey: You get that at the track or at the Kentucky Derby Museum gift shop, or now, most liquor stores throughout the state of Kentucky will also carry them as well. And of course the most traditional way, I don’t know if you can see over my shoulder, I have a Mint Julep glass, but that would be the traditional way in the sterling silver cup. But then also at the track, you’re going to get it in that commemorative glass.
Susan: Right. I have mine right behind me too, right there. Yes, because I love a Mint Julep. Now you may have answered my question, so in 1938, the Mint Julep and the Derby collided, was there one bourbon that they were using? Has it changed throughout time?
Stacey: Actually that’s a great question. It was the Early Times Bourbon that they first used and had a long standing marketing partnership with the track over many, many years. In fact, they would do fun promotions, such as making the world’s largest Mint Julep in a big Early Times branded container. And do a lot of promotions with that.
I’m not sure of the year now, but it would have been sometime in the late 90’s, maybe early 2000’s, one of the sister bourbons to Early Times at the time, and you’ve got to bear with me on bourbon lore. You know, bourbon goes back 200 years here in Kentucky, and sometimes it gets sold. It’s like horse trading – what brand will be sold to another or a copyright will be lost over time. Another company will stop marketing or old brands.
So at the time, Early Times belonged to the Brown-Forman company distillery. They had a sister product, if you will, Woodford Reserve, that they had launched sometime in the 90’s. They decided they would form a marketing partnership with Churchill over the Woodford brand. So they transitioned Early Times Bourbon out of the promotion for it, if you will, just at the track.
You can make it with any bourbon, of course. Woodford has been the brand that’s been marketed in conjunction with the Derby for probably 10, 15 years now. In fact, Woodford Reserve now presents the Kentucky Derby in a very elevated arrangement. Also since that time another company, the Sazerac Company which owns Buffalo Trace bourbon, among about 33 other brands, purchased the Early Times brand from Brown-Forman.
So Sazerac now owns Early Times. It’s no longer a sister of Woodford Reserve, but still a very good bourbon. And one that’s been around and it’s been battle-tested for quite some time.
Susan: So the Kentucky Derby Mint Julep is Woodford Reserve, sugar syrup, and mint. Is it served any other way at the Kentucky Derby or is it just pure, pure, pure?
Stacey: Well, I will tell you, it’s served in a very, posh way at the Derby. Since 2006 when they started this, if you have a $1000 to spare, Woodford Reserve sponsors what they call it the $1000 Mint Julep. They change it up a little each year. But probably the most expensive component of it is you get either a silver, sterling silver or gold, it’s been before, but, very nice, jeweler quality Mint Julep cup that you get to keep.
I’ve seen it presented in a wooden box before, a velvet, padded wooden box, and you buy it ahead of time and they will come to your seat at the Kentucky Derby and make it for you, table-side and they’ve used things like Moroccan mint, and shipped in ice from Antarctica or something crazy like that.
And then they use the finest quality Woodford Reserve, maybe a special brand, and then proceeds from that have gone to various things, such as injured jockeys’ relief or retired horse racing funds.
So that’s the fanciest Mint Julep cup that you can get at the track. I think they’re pretty purest, but throughout Louisville, there are many different spins on this. In fact, they have contests all the time. People are infusing it with different fruits. In fact, for Derby in September, we even did a riff on a little show that we do called Bourbon and Biscuits, which is a little, culinary webcast. Peaches were in season, at the height of their season, in September.
So we did a peach-infused Mint Julep that turned out quite nice. I’ve seen all different kinds of fruits from blueberries, raspberries, and different spins. I just did another spin on it that I like very much that’s a little lighter in taste. After one or two Mint Juleps, the sugar content can get a little clawing to me. This is a nice spin on it, and it’s using the mint-infused syrup that you would for your basic Mint Julep and bourbon, but topping that with champagne and then putting a strawberry on that champagne glass. It just lightens up, you know, it kind of takes out that sweetness.
It’s still got a sweetness about it, but just a little lighter. So you can have a couple of those as opposed to a lot of Mint Juleps. What I like about it too, if you drop in a sugar cube, the bubbles will keep aerating for at least as long as you have the drink in hand. So it’s just a very nice feminine way to have a Mint Julep, the sparkling Mint Julep.
Susan: Now you said you make that in a flute. So let’s go back to the silver cup. Because we didn’t really talk about how it even began being served in the silver cup. So what’s that story?
Stacey: In this part of the country, silver smithing was a big deal, back in around the time that they would have started to drink this as their morning drink for their horses. The silver cup was one of the first trophies, if you will, one of the first prizes that you might get for having a winning horse in a race, in addition to a bag of money. We still call it the purse.
The purse is the winnings for the horses that win for the first three places. In addition to that purse, you might get an engraved silver Julep cup for your win of your horse. At some point in time, that just linked itself, I also think it’s much like if you had a Moscow Mule in the copper and you know how cold that stays.
So the way you pack that crushed ice into a Mint Julep, and then you get that frosting down the side for as long as you’re drinking it. I think that must have had something to do with how beautiful that looked and that it stayed cold for a little bit. Another interesting fact about the Mint Julep is they believe that it was the drink for which, and his name escapes me (Marvin Stone!), the straw was invented. It was because of the Mint Julep, because prior to the paper straw, people used a reed.
Stacey: People used a reed to drink their drinks if they were using a straw. And he didn’t like the taste of that. He developed a paper straw and, like I said, his name escapes me, but it is linked to the first use of the straw was for a Mint Julep.
Susan: I love that. And so you’re at the Kentucky Derby, you walk in, are you immediately presented with a Mint Julep, obviously the answer to that is yes!
Stacey: Yeah. It is the old time way. They’re like carnival barkers, men and women. They’ve got the straps and the tray and they’re pre-made, yelling, “Get your Mint Julep here. Get your Mint Julep here”. They also added another drink, this was several years ago, at least 20. They added a drink to Oaks Day.
So the Kentucky Oaks is run the day before the Kentucky Derby, also a popular day of racing around the world, but especially in Kentucky. So Oaks Day, they close schools here. Most people take off, they used to call it “Louisville’s Day at the Track.” It’s become a lot more popular with out of town people now, too.
So they’ve moved Thursday to Louisville’s Day at the Track now and added its own drink, but I’ll get to that. On Oaks Day, they serve an Oaks Lily. People know that the winner of the Kentucky Derby gets the garland of roses placed around the horse. The highlight of the Kentucky Oaks is the filly’s race for the females. The winner of that gets a garland of lilies, pink lilies.
So this drink is vodka and cranberry juice, and I believe Cointreau, maybe a couple other things and it’s very elegant. It’s pink, but when you walk into the track, now there’s an equal amount of Oaks Lilies being hocked as there are Mint Juleps.
Susan: Ah, competition.
Stacey: Yeah. I’ve got a third drink that has come into play, really just about the past five or six years. So in 2015 for the first time, Louisville claimed its legend of having invented the Old Fashioned here, at what was a gentleman’s club, which is now just a social club. It’s still in operation; it’s called the Pendennis Club. That is where legend has it, if not invented at the Pendennis, the Old Fashioned was certainly popularized and first put on a menu by a bartender by the name of Tom Bullock.
So it’s always been Louisville’s drink. In 2015, the city recognized that and named it the official cocktail. So, like I said, when Thursday started becoming that more popular locals’ day at the track, a group of people, Louisvillians as we would call them, petitioned Churchill to name the Old Fashioned, the official drink of the Thursday before Derby. They have also named the, I think it’s a bit of a silly name I’ll say it, I usually don’t say it. I still call it the Thursday before Derby, but some people like to call it “Thurby.”
Susan: I love it. Soon you will have a drink for every single day of the week before the Derby.
Stacey: Yeah, I’ll petition for a Whiskey Sour next.
Susan: Anything with bourbon, I’m happy. Can you tell when it’s a Kentuckian or a Louisvillian drinking the Mint Julep at the race? Do you drink it in a certain style at the race? Can you just tell who’s a local and who isn’t?
Stacey: I would say, the reason I’m laughing is that I can say yes! Usually is at the track, often only the people from out of town are drinking Mint Juleps.
Susan: Oh my gosh. No way. No.
Stacey: Because I will tell you, most Louisvillians would probably say, if they were asking for a Mint Julep, they might say, could you hold the mint, just give me the bourbon and ice.
Susan: That is so funny. I wonder how many of those are sold as well.
Stacey: Right. At the track and, they’re trying as hard as they can, trust me, but that figure that I gave you 120,000, they have to be pre-batched and, to be efficient, they’re being served in this tray fashion. So by the time you get your Mint Julep, if you’ve never had one, you might think it’s the most refreshing, wonderful thing you’ve ever had in your life.
You’re at Churchill Downs and it’s on your bucket list. You’re at the Derby. So it’s going to be wonderful to you. You’re going to hear angels singing when you drink it. But Kentuckians that have had it at home with their aunt’s Mint Julep syrup that has steeped overnight and poured into a sterling silver cup and then dusted with powdered sugar and fresh mint right out of the garden, that’s a whole different experience. So again, most of the people at the track are probably from out of town.
Susan: You’ve so answered my question. I was going to ask how locals actually drink it and when they actually drink it other than the Derby.
Stacey: I would say most locals at home are drinking it at a Derby party. Then there’s a couple of places in Louisville that I like to go when I’m really hot and I’m in the mood for that. I might go to The Brown Hotel where they also serve it in a silver Mint Julep cup. The Silver Dollar is a nice, honky-tonk, great whiskey bar and they serve a very nice cold one with the look of the glass, but it’s all frothy.
Or if you’re taking guests to the Kentucky Derby Museum, they have a Derby Cafe. And so a lot of people might be taking their guests to the Kentucky Derby Museum while they’re in town and have one. I think most Louisvillians are gravitating towards that Old Fashioned, just a little more sippable most of the time or in summer when you actually have that fresh mint in your yard.
Susan: Gosh, it just sounds divine. So are there any fun facts that you haven’t told me already about the Mint Julep or the Kentucky Derby or them together?
Stacey: I can think of one more that we didn’t talk about. How the Mint Julep got its national reputation. They traced that back to the 1820s, where a statesman out of Kentucky by the name of Henry Clay who was called the Great Compromiser. He ended up being Secretary of State and they say that he introduced the Mint Julep to the very elite Washington social and political circles. They know where he did it, the bar still exists. I’ve been there to have a cocktail. It’s very cool. It’s called The Round Robin Bar. It’s in the Willard Hotel and it still exists. They say that he loved drinking his bourbon, he loved drinking it that way. He introduced it to that whole circle. And it made its way from that, if you will.
Susan: Well, following on from that. So if someone wanted to make the Mint Julep at home, how best that they should go about it?
Stacey: Sure. My favorite way is – my husband has an aunt that does it this way for her Derby parties. If you’re going to make a bigger batch, you might have three cups of water and three cups of sugar. If it’s going to be a smaller batch, just one cup of sugar and one cup of water, 1:1 ratio of sugar and water. Dissolve that just until melted. And as that’s cooling, you steep your mint leaves in this overnight. Then the next morning, you strain out your mint leaves and you have a beautifully clear, mint-infused simple syrup.
What she likes to do is set up a bar where she’s got a pitcher of the mint-infused syrup, then she’s got her bourbon of choice. Their house bourbon is Old Forester, also a sister of Woodford Reserve, and a Louisville bourbon. She’s got a couple of choices for you to pour your bourbon in and she’s got her crushed ice there. Then she’s got a little container, like I said, with the powdered sugar that you can dust over the top.
It’s just a self-serve bar. You can add as much bourbon as you want; you can go very light on the simple syrup, but it’s a make your own kind of arrangement. And that’s probably my favorite way to make them.
Susan: I love that you told me how to make it for a party!
Susan: Right. For people who are coming over, because it’s definitely something that you should share with everyone.
Stacey: Oh, definitely. You have to have someone to cheers with. And speaking of that, we do like the idea of Mint Juleps so much in Louisville that in 2013, even if we’re not always drinking them like we would be the Old Fashioned all year, we did proclaim an entire month of celebrating the Mint Julep. So we are currently in the throes of what we like to call “Mint Julep Month.”
It’s just a way to get people excited about spring and the coming of Derby season. We see people offering classes on how to make them; we see our bars on the Urban Bourbon Trail have specials, making them differently. Like I said, all these few fruit infused versions.
Even retail has gotten into it. You can see our gift shops are selling Mint Julep infused items such as Mint Julep lotions, and lip, scrubs and soaps. Our bakers get into it and make Mint Julep cupcakes, Mint Julep drizzled donuts, all kinds of fun things, just in celebration of the Mint Julep.
Susan: Well, maybe you can give me some of those links so that some people can look at some of these things. Very important, what are the dates of Mint Julep month?
Stacey: It is always April 1 through April 30 every year.
Susan: All right. On the way up to leading to the race itself.
Stacey: People can participate in this on social media. It has had a hashtag since 2013, simply #MintJulepMonth. We encourage people to post photos of themselves drinking their Mint Juleps, making their Mint Juleps, using the Mint Julep soap, just a fun way to celebrate spring and the running of America’s longest running sporting event.
Susan: Everything Mint Julep. That is like a dream for me. I always leave my guests asking them this question: usually it’s if you could drink any cocktail anywhere, if you could drink a Mint Julep anywhere right now, where would that be?
Stacey: Oh, wow. I think right now, Spring is one of my absolute favorite times to be in Kentucky. I would probably pick the front porch of a horse farm somewhere between Louisville and Lexington was just an hour drive from here and just watch the horses run and the daffodils bloom and the tulips. Just enjoy a beautiful Kentucky spring.
Susan: I wish I could be there right now with you having that. So thank you so much. I’ve learned so much about the Mint Julep. It’s so good. In fact, I think I’m going to make one right now.
Stacey: I hope you’ll make one on Kentucky Derby day.
Susan: Absolutely. I’m going to be watching it.
Stacey: #MintJulepMonth, when you do that!
Susan: Oh, absolutely. Again, thank you so much for joining me.
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