Kentucky Derby

Derby-goers dive into mint juleps

Storing her julep glasses in her purse, Tammy Phillips of 
Petersburg, Mich., had a good start on her goal of collecting 
a set of 12 during the Kentucky Derby on Saturday.
Storing her julep glasses in her purse, Tammy Phillips of Petersburg, Mich., had a good start on her goal of collecting a set of 12 during the Kentucky Derby on Saturday.

Safely nestled in Tammy Phillips' purse are two Derby 137 glasses, empty now of the mint juleps they previously contained.

She is going to need a bigger purse.

"I'm looking for a set of 12 by the time we leave," said the Michigan woman, thrilled to be in Kentucky for her first Derby.

It's not yet noon and she's already downed three of the sugar-laced bourbon concoctions. She's quite certain you have to start by "shoving the mint way into the drink" and having "not too much sugar, but some."

Everybody's an expert on mint juleps on Derby Day. A lot of people are fans, especially on Derby Day. But a lot of people are drinkers of mint juleps on Derby Day, even if not exactly fans.

Derby Day juleps are like Derby Day roses and hats the size of Man o' War's backside — traditions that have been around for more than a century, though no one can quite put a finger on who brought or wore the first one.

Chris Dunlevy has five children, but she is no drinker. She will need five glasses, "one for each child, and someone has to empty them. It's a tradition, like it or not."

She may be closer to the truth about juleps here than maybe anyone else will admit. "I have to say I would never order one if I were out," said Dunlevy, turning up her nose.

A native Kentuckian, Dunlevy had never been to a Derby, "but I'm here now and I'm going to embrace the whole tradition."

If you must know, tasting it "burned from start to finish."

According to the Churchill Downs folks, during this past Oaks/Derby weekend, they've sold 120,000 juleps, not counting the 103 that went for $1,000 per glass for charity.

Behind the white curtain where they pour the drinks for the orange-vested Rocket Man vendors to tote to the grandstand crowd, cashier Kari Hearsch explained that her tent did more than her share of that total.

The enclave where the vendors themselves bring back cash in exchange for a fresh load of two-dozen drinks smelled of freshly crushed mint. Here, vendor Patrick Sheller of Indianapolis explained that it takes about a half hour to sell his 24 drinks "but that picks up considerably after Race 7. It's quicker if it's hot, too."

Upstairs, in the Finish Line Suites, the estimate is that the bar is selling 100 an hour. And, despite the fact that Early Times is the official Mint Julep of the Derby, bartenders will be glad to make clients the famous drink with any bourbon they desire. Same price, $10.

Four men in Italian suits from Las Vegas are drinking, yes, Early Times and studying bound copies of the Racing Form, marked up with notes on horses and riders. On the cover of one, the name reads: Mint Julep Mike.

This is the personal race book of Mike Montana, of Las Vegas, Nev., casino guy, a man who never drinks a julep unless he's at the Kentucky Derby and, then, from sun-up until he has won all the money he can.

Asked how many he will drink this day, he replies, "as many as I can afford."

Before he is finished with explaining how that works well for him, he has also given advice on how to drink coffee — with Sambuca — and which horse to put how much money down on.

The julep can go uptown or down. It can also be a drink that goes where most of us don't. It goes where people pay $1,000 for it. Like over in the Woodford Reserve tent where, until they sold out at 4:30 p.m., a cool grand bought a "delicious" julep, according to Ron Krall, the Washington, D.C. father of a UK freshman and gymnast. Krall, at his first Derby, purchased the Tiffany-inscribed sterling julep cup with the number 92, the year of his daughter Paige's birth.

Ron took a sip. His wife, Peggy, took a sip.

Even Paige took a sip.

She called it "very strong."

The bourbon was Woodford Reserve Special Select. The ice was made from Tasmanian rainwater. The sugar was local and bourbon-smoked, The chocolate-mint was grown in San Diego.

Celebrity chef Guy Fieri, entertainer Joey Fatone and fashion designer Betsey Johnson all bought cups, which help support the Heart of the Horse Foundation.

Then, to remind us where we were, the big puffy cartoony Mint Julep guy in an inflatable suit came by, trailed by everyone who wanted their picture taken with him. Easily eight feet tall and four feet wide, with arms and legs of a horse, the walking julep cup looked downright frosty cool and photogenic.

And very Derby.

Meredith Cates, Jonathan Wurm and Rick Dencer, all of Nashville, and all whiskey drinkers, all at their first Derby, stood near the paddock and sipped. They looked delighted. They thought they'd found a new twist on an old favorite.

Cates called them "great." Wurm thought they were "good, but not sacred."

Asked if she was going to eat the mint, Cates made a face, said she thought she might have to drink more to do that, then added, "Maybe later."

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