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The iconic Kentucky Derby, an annual horse race held at Churchill Downs Race Course in Louisville, Kentucky, is the oldest sporting event in history, dating back to 1875. Horse racing is a series of Triple Crown jewels fit for thoroughbreds, conjuring up images of wide-brimmed hats, holiday attire and classic Southern fare.

But perhaps nothing represents Derby Day better than fresh mint juleps. 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 farther than you might think.

“The word ‘julep’ was first used in the Middle Ages to refer to medicinal drinks – like rose water – used to prevent disease and promote health,” Goodlett told Yahoo Life. “The mint variety of julep was an American innovation that first became popular in the 1800s in the coastal South of the Carolinas and Virginia. Mint juleps were a good morning habit for Southerners, but in came the advent of the proposed anti-inflammatory drug.”

Goodlett says mint juleps became the official drink of Kentucky horse racing in 1939, but the drink’s association with the race dates back to the first race in the 1870s. “It is believed that Churchill Downs founder Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr. grew mint behind the club because juleps were a popular drink in the late 1800s,” he said.

According to Goodlett, it is estimated that more than 120,000 mint juleps were consumed during the Kentucky Derby and the Kentucky Oaks, the fourth-most attended horse race in the United States behind the Triple Crown, also held at Churchill Downs. The entire month of April is also known as Mint Julep Month.

Those iconic souvenir glasses race participants took home after a day of drinking Juleps? They got their start because of a bit of theft.

“When track patrons started taking glasses from the clubhouse in the late 1930s, track leaders decided to embrace these clever thieves rather than fight them,” Goodlett shared. “The first souvenir mint glass was sold in 1939 and has remained a collector’s item ever since.”

Dustin Willett is the executive chef at the Brown Hotel in Louisville: the birthplace of another classic Derby Day “hot brown” sandwich.

“The hot brown was invented at the Brown Hotel in 1926, so it’s been going strong for nearly 100 years,” shares Willett. “It’s our most popular dish, and its popularity only increases during the Derby …… You can hardly think of the Derby or the hot brown without considering the other.”

The sandwich contains turkey, bacon and tomatoes baked in Mornay sauce, a creamy sauce with cheese. While the dish has been copied by many other restaurants in the area and across the country, Willett and the hotel owner aren’t worried.

He says, “I’ve talked to many people over the years who have driven hours just to have a hot cup of coffee at the Brown Hotel.” It’s really on a lot of people’s bucket lists – and imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.”

The novelist Kimmerly Martin, an emergency room doctor by trade who lives in Charlotte, N.C., grew up in Berea, Ky. and lived in Louisville during college. A native Kentuckian, Martin shared that her favorite Kentucky Derby dish is a simple sandwich that takes her back to her college days.

“In Louisville, food is almost a religion,” she says, “but the dish that most reminds me of my time there is the Benedictine Tea Sandwich.”

Made with crisp cucumbers and a rich, creamy cheese sauce, the Benedictine Tea Sandwich is made with fresh herbs such as dill, parsley and fine parsley and was originally invented by a Kentucky caterer.

The small sandwiches are a Derby Day staple, and Martin says many gourmet grocery stores in Louisville have pre-made sandwiches ready to eat on vacation in town. Nonetheless, she says they’re easy to make from scratch. “You can easily make your own, too,” Martin says, “and Benedict’s is a unique and recognizable flavor: the first bite of these delicious sandwiches immediately takes me back to my beautiful hometown.”

As a former chef at Churchill Downs, David Danielson was an expert on Kentucky horse racing food. Although he has since moved on to work as a chef at Dant Crossing and Log Still Distillery restaurants, he remembers his Derby days fondly.

“I have some favorite Derby dishes,” Danielson shares. “Shrimp and grits, sweet potato salad and green chile cheese are every dish I’ve been preparing for years, and they’re all on track for the Derby).”

“The Derby is a really great race,” Danielson said. “The energy of the day as you walk through the track – it’s great to see all the fashion and guests having a great time. As the race gets closer, we’re bringing all the chefs up to the roof overlooking the track to take it all into account. There’s nothing like 160,000 fans yelling at the top of their lungs as the horses run to the finish line.

Want to make your own Derby at home? We asked our Kentucky Derby food experts to share some of their favorite Derby Day recipes.

Chilled Mint Julep
Courtesy of the Kentucky Horse Racing Museum

1 ½ – 2 ounces simple syrup, tasting (recipe below)

4 – 5 fresh mint leaves

2 ounces bourbon

Garnish: mint sprig

In a julep or rocks glass, gently stir the mint and simple syrup with a stirrer or wooden spoon handle. Add the bourbon and cover tightly with crushed ice. Stir until the outside of the glass is frosty. Top with a mint sprig.

Mint syrup.

1/2 cup granulated sugar

1/2 cup water

Add sugar and water to a small saucepan over medium heat. Stir until sugar is dissolved. When cool, pour into jars and seal with lids. Simple syrup will keep refrigerated for about a month.

Hot Brown
Courtesy of Hotel Brown

2 ounces of butter

2 ounces all-purpose flour

8 ounces heavy cream

8 ounces whole milk

½ cup Pecorino Romano cheese, plus 1 tablespoon for garnish

Pinch of grated nutmeg

Salt and pepper

14 ounces sliced roasted turkey breast, cut into thick slices

4 slices Texas toast, trimmed on the outside

4 slices crisp bacon

2 Roma tomatoes, sliced in half

Parmesan cheese

chili peppers


In a two-quart saucepan, melt the butter and slowly stir in the flour until combined and a thick paste (flour paste) forms.
Continue to cook the batter over medium-low heat for two minutes, stirring often.
Stir the heavy cream and whole milk into the flour mixture and cook over medium heat until the cream begins to boil, about 2-3 minutes.
Remove the sauce from the heat and slowly add the Pecorino Romano cheese until the mornay sauce becomes 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 cut in half to form two triangles and the other kept square. Then cover with 7 ounces of turkey.
Take the two halves of roma tomatoes and two toast points and place them on the bottom of the turkey and toast.
Next, pour in half of the Mornay sauce, completely covering the plate. Sprinkle with additional Pecorino Romano cheese.
Place the entire dish under the broiler until the cheese begins to brown and bubble. Remove from broiler, cross two slices of crisp bacon on top, sprinkle with paprika and parsley, and serve.

Benedictine Tea Sandwich
Courtesy of Kimmery Martin

Large cucumber, peeled, seeds scraped and chopped

8 ounces cream cheese (optional: substitute 4 ounces of good quality goat cheese)

2 tablespoons chopped parsley

1/4 cup chopped green onion (you can also use grated sweet yellow onion)

1 tablespoon mayonnaise

Pinch of paprika

Salt and pepper to taste

Combine ingredients in a blender and blend until smooth. Garnish with a little reserved parsley or green onion. Spread a slice of cucumber on thin white bread cut into rounds (using a cookie cutter), or serve with crackers or toasted pita bread.


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