The Kentucky Derby is the pinnacle of American horse racing. There’s a certain amount of pomp and circumstance that surrounds the event every year, even for people who don’t know the difference between a backstretch and a clubhouse turn. The Derby revolves around horses, but anyone interested in celebrating can get by with the amount of equestrian knowledge you get from watching Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron. That’s because the Derby, arguably more than any other sporting event, is defined by the party. For proof, take a look at the numbers.
Every year during Derby weekend, close to 120,000 Mint Juleps are served at the Churchill Downs Racetrack. That’s more Mint Juleps served in a span of two days than there are people in 98 percent of American cities. That many cocktails takes a whole lot of whiskey. According to numbers released by Churchill Downs for 2017, more than 10,000 bottles of Old Forester Mint Julep Ready-to-Serve cocktail were used. That’s nearly 2,000 gallons of the stuff, or enough to fill one of those water trucks in Holes. Some 60,000 pounds of ice was used to fill the cups (enough to fill a 15-by-30-foot pool), and 1,000 pounds of freshly harvested mint was used, which is heavier than a racehorse.
Kentucky Derby organizers didn’t invent the Mint Julep, but the cocktail has become inextricably intertwined with the horse race. It’s likely part of the reason that Hunter S. Thompson called the event “decadent and depraved.” The origin of the Mint Julep dates back more than 200 years and was the first internationally known American cocktail. The Derby, which started in 1875, didn’t adopt the drink as its official cocktail until 1938. Nevertheless, you can’t talk about Mint Juleps without talking about the Kentucky Derby these days.
Thompson was likely referring to the masses when he used the word “depraved,” but displays of decadence radiate from all walks of society. According to E!, around 90 percent of women don an extravagant hat for the day. E! also reports that a true Derby hat costs between $300 and $500.