Chris Goodlett, the senior curator at the Kentucky Derby Museum, points into a display of antique mint julep glasses.
“So in 1875, at the first Kentucky Derby, we would have had mint juleps,” Goodlett said.
The collectible glasses, Goodlett says, came along later; the first were found in Churchill Downs dining rooms in 1938. At the time, track management noticed the patterned glassware kept “disappearing” with guests, so they decided to charge patrons an extra 25 cents if they wanted to keep the glasses.
And since then, the cocktail has become synonymous with the Derby and is a major moneymaker for race organizers; each year, about 120,000 juleps are sold trackside for about $10 a piece — collectible glass included.
But the Kentucky Derby isn’t the only race that takes place at Churchill Downs during the first week of May, and track staff have started creating special cocktails branded to races other than the Derby.
For example, the day before the Derby is called the Oaks; it’s the Friday running of the fillies.
And in 2006, race organizers decided it needed an official cocktail as well. One that would incorporate Finlandia vodka, the vodka sponsor of Churchill Downs.
They contacted Tim Laird, who works in beverage development, and has written books on Derby entertaining. Laird refers to himself as America’s CEO — that’s “chief entertaining officer.”
“It was actually based on, well at that time, 13 years ago, the biggest cocktail was the cosmopolitan,” Laird said.
So Laird created a vodka, lemon-lime soda and cranberry cocktail that is flavored with orange liqueur and garnished with six blackberries. He called it the Oaks Lily, named after the wreath of pink Stargazer lilies draped over the winning filly’s neck.
It was an immediate hit.
“On that first Oaks Day, I saw this line from the bar [that was serving Lilies] — it had to be at least four blocks long, not kidding,” Laird said.
According to Laird, Lily sales on Oaks Day now nearly rival Julep sales on Derby Day.
And now there’s another sponsored cocktail. It’s sold the Thursday before the Kentucky Derby — and referred to (by some) by the tongue-and-cheek name of “Thurby.”
As the main race on Saturday gets more popular and expensive to attend, Thurby is a more affordable way for locals to hit the track. In 2018, Old Forester bourbon sponsored the race; its signature cocktail is an Old Forester old-fashioned.
“So you have hometown bourbon, hometown race,” Laird says. “So right now, that’s the signature drink of Thurby.”
Laird wonders though, as Thurby becomes more popular, will there eventually be “Wurby,” and if so, what the sponsored cocktail will be.