The iconic Kentucky Derby, an annual horse race held at the Churchill Downs racing complex in Louisville, Ky., is the longest-running sporting event, dating back to 1875. The Derby is the jewel of the Triple Crown, a series of horse races for thoroughbreds, and evokes visions of wide-brimmed hats, festive garb and classic Southern food.
But there may be nothing more synonymous with Derby day than a fresh mint julep. Chris Goodlett, director of curatorial and educational affairs at the Kentucky Derby Museum, says the history of this refreshing cocktail, made with bourbon, fresh mint, sugar, water and crushed ice, goes back further than you might think.
"The word 'julep' was first used in the Middle Ages, referring to medicinal drinks — such as rose water — taken to stave off illness and promote good health," Goodlett tells Yahoo Life. "The mint variety of the julep is an American innovation, first popularized in the Coastal South of the Carolinas and Virginia in the 1800s. Mint juleps were the good southerner's morning constitutional, but they were also prescribed by physicians for various ailments before the idea of anti-inflammatories emerged."
Goodlett says the mint julep became the official drink of the Kentucky Derby in 1939, but the drink's ties to the race date back to the first running in the 1870s. "It is believed that Churchill Downs founder, Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr., grew mint behind the clubhouse because juleps were a popular drink in the late 1800s," he says.
According to Goodlett, it's estimated that more than 120,000 mint juleps are consumed over the course of the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks (the fourth-highest attended horse race in the U.S. behind the Triple Crown, also held at Churchill Downs). The entire month of April is also celebrated as Mint Julep Month.
And those signature souvenir glasses race attendees bring home after their day of julep-sipping? They got their start due to a bit of thievery.
"When patrons of the track started taking glasses from the clubhouse in the late 1930s, track leadership decided to embrace these ingenious thieves instead of fighting them," Goodlett shares. "The first souvenir mint julep glass was sold in 1939 and has been a collector's item ever since."
Dustin Willett is executive chef at the Brown Hotel in Louisville: the birthplace of another Derby day classic, the "hot brown" sandwich.
"The hot brown was invented at the Brown Hotel in 1926, so it has been going strong for almost 100 years," Willett shares. "It's our most popular dish and the popularity only increases around the Derby … you almost can't think about the Derby or a hot brown without thinking about the other."
The sandwich contains turkey, bacon and tomatoes and is baked in Mornay sauce, a creamy bechamél-style sauce with cheese. While the dish has been copied by many other restaurants in the area — and around the country — Willett and the hotel owners aren't worried.
"I have talked with many people over the years who have driven for hours just to have a hot brown at the Brown Hotel," he says."It really is a bucket list item for a lot of people — and imitation is the most sincere form of flattery."
Kimmery Martin, an emergency room doctor-turned novelist who lives in Charlotte, N.C., grew up in Berea, K.Y. and lived in Louisville during her college years. As a native Kentuckian, Martin shares her favorite Kentucky Derby dish is a simple sandwich that transports her back to her college days.
"Good food is almost a religion in Louisville," she says, "but the dish that more than anything reminds me of my days there are the Benedictine tea sandwiches."
Benedictine tea sandwiches are made with crisp cucumber and a rich thick cream cheese spread made with fresh herbs like dill, parsley and chives, originally invented by a caterer in Kentucky.
The tiny sandwiches are such a Derby day staple that Martin says many of Louisville's gourmet grocery stores have pre-made sandwiches ready to go for eating on what is considered a holiday in the town. Still, she says they're simple to make from scratch. "You can also easily make your own," Martin says, "Benedictine is such a unique and recognizable taste: The first bite of one of these scrumptious sandwiches instantly takes me back to my beautiful home state."
As a former chef at Churchill Downs, David Danielson is an expert on Kentucky Derby food. While he's since moved on to working as a chef at restaurants Dant Crossing and Log Still Distillery, he remembers his days at the Derby fondly.
"I have a few favorite derby dishes," Danielson shares. "Shrimp and grits, sweet potato salad and pimento cheese are each dishes I have been preparing for many years that were created for the Derby to be served in Millionaires' Row (Derby seating for celebrities and members of high society, boasting the best vantage points on the track)."
"The Derby is such an amazing event," says Danielson. "The energy of the day as you walk through the track — seeing all the fashion and the guests having a wonderful time. As the day builds toward the race, we would take all the chefs up to the roof and look out over the track, just taking it all in. Nothing can compare to 160,000 fans yelling as loud as they can as the horses come racing down to the finish."
Want to make your own Derby spread at home? We asked our Kentucky Derby cuisine experts to share some of their favorite Derby day recipes.
courtesy of the Kentucky Derby Museum
1 ½ - 2 ounces simple syrup, to taste (recipe below)
4-5 fresh mint leaves
2 ounces bourbon
garnish: mint sprig
In a julep cup or rocks glass, lightly muddle the mint and simple syrup with a muddler or the handle of a wooden spoon. Add the bourbon and pack tightly with crushed ice. Stir until the cup is frosted on the outside. Top with a mint sprig.
Mint Simple Syrup:
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup water
Add the sugar and water to a small saucepan over medium heat. Stir until sugar is dissolved. Let cool and pour into a jar and seal tightly with a lid. Simple syrup will keep, refrigerated, for about one month.
The Hot Brown
courtesy of the Brown Hotel
2 ounces butter
2 ounces all-purpose flour
8 ounces heavy cream
8 ounces whole milk
½ cup of pecorino romano cheese, plus 1 tablespoon for garnish
Pinch of ground nutmeg
Salt and pepper
14 ounces sliced roasted turkey breast, sliced thick
4 slices of Texas toast, crust trimmed
4 slices of crispy bacon
2 Roma tomatoes, sliced in half
In a two‑quart saucepan, melt butter and slowly whisk in flour until combined and forms a thick paste (roux).
Continue to cook roux for two minutes over medium‑low heat, stirring frequently.
Whisk heavy cream and whole milk into the roux and cook over medium heat until the cream begins to simmer, about 2‑3 minutes.
Remove sauce from heat and slowly whisk in pecorino romano cheese until the Mornay sauce is smooth.
Add nutmeg, salt and pepper to taste.
For each hot brown, place two slices of toast with the crusts cut off in an oven-safe dish: one slice is cut in half corner to corner to make two triangles and the other slice is left in a square shape. Then cover with 7 ounces of turkey.
Take the two halves of Roma tomato and two toast points and set them alongside the base of the turkey and toast.
Next, pour one half of the Mornay sauce to completely cover the dish. Sprinkle with additional pecorino romano cheese.
Place the entire dish under a broiler until cheese begins to brown and bubble. Remove from broiler, cross two pieces of crispy bacon on top, sprinkle with paprika and parsley and serve immediately.
Benedictine Tea Sandwiches
courtesy Kimmery Martin
Large cucumber, peeled with seeds scraped out and finely chopped
8 ounces cream cheese (optional: replace 4 ounces with good quality goat cheese)
2 tablespoons minced parsley
1/4 cup finely chopped green onion (can also use grated sweet yellow onion)
1 tablespoon mayo
Dash of cayenne pepper
Salt and pepper to taste
Combine ingredients in a blender and pulse until smooth. Garnish with a bit of reserved parsley or green onion. Spread on thin white bread cut into a circle (use a cookie cutter) with a slice of cucumber, or serve with crackers or toasted pita bread.
Want lifestyle and wellness news delivered to your inbox? Sign up here for Yahoo Life’s newsletter.