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Who cares about the race? How this drink has become a symbol of Kentucky Derby

Churchill Downs sells more than 120K mint juleps during race weekend

(Getty Images)

The Kentucky Derby is almost here, and as is the case every year, people will be obsessed with a certain feature impossible to miss at Churchill Downs. 

No, we’re not talking about the horses.

An estimated 120,000 mint juleps are served every year at Churchill Downs over a two-day period (counting Friday’s Kentucky Oaks race), so it’s no wonder that the mint julep has become the official drink of the Kentucky Derby. 

So, what is a mint julep and why has it become so popular at the Derby?

Let’s delve into those questions and more below.

What is a mint julep?

A mint julep is a mixed cocktail with four main ingredients: bourbon, simple syrup, fresh mint and crushed ice. The type of mint can vary, but spearmint is often the popular choice.

There are variations on how to mix the drink, but it is traditionally served in a silver cup or highball glass. 

The drink often is served with the glass or cup filled with the crushed ice that is on top of mint, syrup and bourbon, with more mint stacked on top of the ice. 

How did it become official drink of the Kentucky Derby?

With Kentucky being a big producer of bourbon, the drink, containing plenty of ice -- remember all that ice we just mentioned? -- seems perfect to cool people off on hot May days. The mint julep has been the official drink of the Derby since 1939.

The winner of the Derby gets toasted by the governor of Kentucky with a silver julep cup.

CNN did an in-depth history of the mint julep last year. 

Does this really cost $1,000?

Last year, a traditional mint julep cost $11 at Churchill Downs, but if you really have money to throw around and you want to splurge, you can get a special mint julep that costs $1,000.

As for the reason why those mint juleps cost $1,000?

One, the ingredients are finer.

In the past, ice has been flown in from a glacier in Finland and mints from Ireland, while honey aged in an oak barrel for 145 days was used, according to the Louisville Courier Journal.

Each year the recipe is different, according to foodandwine.com.

Two, the drinks are served in special sterling silver or gold cups that can be kept by the buyer. 

Only 145 of the $1,000 mint juleps are available (125 in silver cups, 20 in gold) and they are available for pre-purchase up until April 30. 

Despite the cost, the drinks usually sell out and give those who buy them access to a special mint julep tent for the race. 

Are there variations?

Why yes, of course. 

If you don’t want to spend tons of money to go down to the Kentucky Derby, but still are really into it and want to serve mint juleps at your own viewing party, there are different ways to prepare them.

An article on townandcountrymag.com lists 15 different mint julep recipes to consider as you're cheering on your favorite horse at the Derby. 

Then again, who cares about the race itself? 

For many people, it's all about the mint juleps when the Kentucky Derby rolls around.