Mint in Juleps Keep Churchill Downs Local on Kentucky Derby Day

The thoroughbreds that run in the Kentucky Derby hail from Central Kentucky, Florida, Louisiana. The dresses and hats are made all over the world. But there’s one Derby week tradition you’ll find every year at Churchill Downs that’s still made right here at home—the mint garnishing every signature julep is grown at Dohn & Dohn Gardens, a small family farm in southern Jefferson County.

If you order a mint julep at the track this week, you might notice that the mint sprigs are a bit shorter than usual.

 “[The mint’s] not going to have the real long stems to it that we normally have,” says mint farmer Bill Dohn. “So we’re running a little on the short side.”

Thank the harsh winter, Dohn says.

 “We lost some of [the mint] during the winter, which very seldom ever happens,” he adds. “We have some burn on some leaves here, and there are certain areas in other spots we can’t even cut it.”

Dohn has grown mint professionally since 1975 on 10 acres near Pleasure Ridge Park High School, where he also grows kale and nursery plants. He started supplying Churchill Downs in 1980. Now he ships about two tons of mint to the track for Derby weekend.

After a winter season plagued by ice storms and polar vortex temperatures, Dohn started his spring mint harvest with some reservations. Up until about five weeks ago, his mint fields were brown, and Dohn admits he was worried about how the harsh winter would affect his crop. By late last week, though, enough plants had reached that sweet spot of five-to-eight inches tall, allowing his crew of six or seven local high school students to start cutting by hand.

Many of Dohn’s young workers return every spring for the harvest. Nathan Nelson is 19, and this is his seventh year on the fields.

 “It’s a lot of fun. It’s easy,” says Nelson. “It’s a race between everybody to see who’s the fastest.”

For the record, he’s the fastest. Nelson is the veteran on the crew, which also includes his younger brother. It goes like this—grab a handful of mint, make a clean cut with an Old Hickory brand boning knife, rubber band it together. Repeat. And watch your fingers—Dohn sharpens those knives every morning.

Here’s more on how the mint in those juleps is harvested:

The mint bunches are grouped into larger bundles, wrapped in damp newspaper to keep them from drying out, and tied together with twine. They’re stacked vertically in boxes, ready to head to the wholesaler.

Without Dohn’s mint, a julep at Churchill Downs wouldn’t be the same. Not that he would know—he thinks he last attended the Derby in 1974. Dohn leaves town for the calming waters of Lake Cumberland instead.

“Because it’s been chaotic the two weeks before Derby, everything is pretty rough,” Dohn says.

“By Derby Day, if they don’t have it, it’s like pumpkins at Halloween, you know? They’re no good the next day, you know, so it’s just nice to get away from here for a little bit.”

And what’s the secret to the perfect mint julep, according to the king of the mint? 

“I like a mint julep,” Dohn says. “I prefer bourbon on the rocks.”

On Thursday, we’ll explore different ways to make mint juleps.

Related: How to Make Mint Juleps for the Kentucky Derby

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