LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Beth Sweeney, TV co-anchor with WFIE of Evansville, Ind., will end her streak this year of sipping at least one mint julep at every Kentucky Derby she attends. She'll abstain because she is expecting a child.
"I'm a born and bred Kentuckian, so I grew up going to the Derby every year. And, of course, when I was of age, that's the first thing that I ordered when I came to Churchill Downs," Sweeney said Friday morning from beneath a wide-brimmed, pink Derby hat.
"I've had one every year for as many years as I can count. … I'm due June 8, so I'm counting down the days until I can enjoy something else like a mint julep."
The drink – made basically with crushed ice, sugar, mint leaves and bourbon whiskey (or other spirits) – is part of the Derby scene, just like big hats, betting and the playing of "My Old Kentucky Home." They are served at Derby parties across the country.
Churchill Downs estimates it sells about 120,000 of them each year for Friday's Kentucky Oaks for fillies and Saturday's Derby. At the track, they go for $11 with a souvenir glass on Friday-Saturday (up from $10 earlier in the week).
For the ninth year, Woodford Reserve, official bourbon of the Derby, has mint juleps at steeper prices. It is offering 79 of them at $1,000 each and another ten at $2,000 each. The engraved cups this year have a gold-plated medallion of a horse and a garland of roses. Woodford says proceeds benefit the Old Friends Thoroughbred Retirement Center for former race horses and that more than $354,000 has been raised with the program.
Chris Morris, master distiller for Woodford Reserve and historian of American spirits, says racing and whiskey making both got their Kentucky starts in the early 1770s.
"We believe the first two things our ancestors brought with them to Kentucky were horses and stills. That was part of that Scotch-Irish-English culture that came to Kentucky," says Morris. " … It was just a horse/whiskey culture."
So how did the mint and sugar get in the mix?
Morris says that goes back to Colonial drinks originally were called "smashers'' or "bracers." They were viewed as medicinal.
"In Virginia, they were made with rum and brandy. So our Virginia ancestors came into Kentucky, and of course there was no brandy here. There was no rum here," says Morris. "They were too far from the sugar cane fields of the Caribbean, and they did not have fruit orchards. But they had corn, and of that led to the development of bourbon … and that led to the mint julep as we know it today."
The mint julep is not for everybody. With the sugar boiled with water to make a syrup, it's too sweet for some and a waste of good bourbon. For others, it's refreshing.
Here's a sampling of track opinions this week:
Jason Nuxol, 21, of Louisville, wore a t-shirt with "Kentucky Bourbon Trail … Commonwealth of Bourbon" across the front. "I just like my bourbon straight with ice, maybe a little water," he said. But he said his mom, Lynn, is a julep fan. "That's her drink," he said.
Anita Atkinson, between sips on a julep: "I don't like bourbon, but I like a mint julep. And I'm from the 'Bourbon Capital of the World,' Bardstown, Ky.'' Bardstown hosts the Kentucky Bourbon Festival.
Eric Thomas, 42, of Sellersburg, Ind., with two big mint sprigs in his glass: "I like them. … It's sweet, it's refreshing and just a break from beer."
For its $1,000/$2,000 juleps, Woodford Reserve's theme this year is the 89th anniversary of the Derby's identification as the "Run for the Roses." That's why it has 89 cups for sale. Beyond the fancy cups and the boxes made of the same American Oak used in its aging barrels, Woodford has added some extras
"We have candied rose petals, actual rose petals that we've soaked in sugar water," says Morris, the master distiller. "So we're going to put some rose petals in the cup, a little bit of mint, muddle that together. The ice we're using has been made from rose water. … It has the mint, but now it has the rose hint to it."
Tim Laird is with the Brown-Forman Corp., producer and marketer of brands such as Woodford Reserve, Jack Daniel's Tennessee Whiskey and Southern Comfort. His title is "America's CEO.'' That's "Chief Entertaining Officer."
Laird's bottom line on the mint julep: "It's part of the fabric of the South here."