Kentucky Derby Cups: A Brief History

“Kentuckians maintain that when a mint julep is made right, you can hear angels sing. Always made with fresh mint, Kentucky bourbon, and plenty of crushed or shaved ice, it is the official drink of the Kentucky Derby. ”

Traditionally, mint juleps are served in silver or pewter cups (which frost better than glass). Thousands of mint juleps are served every year at the Derby, on the first Saturday in May, at Churchill Downs, and at weekend Derby parties around the nation.

The racetracks’ clubhouse began mixing mint juleps around 1875. The drink really became popular and became the track’s signature libation in 1938 when the management began charging 75 cents for the drink and the small glass vessel it came in. Every year during Derby week at Churchill Downs, more than 80,000 mint juleps are served.

Mint Julep Cups and Mint Julep Glasses
Many people use the words ‘mint julep cups’ and ‘mint julep glasses’ interchangeably, but in Kentucky they actually refer to two different things.

Here is a quick explanation of the differences between the two with a little bit of history.

About Kentucky Mint Julep Cups

With a history that stretches back hundreds of years, the Kentucky Mint Julep Cup can trace its origins to early American silversmiths. Their designs for cups and beakers changed as they moved across the country, and cups from many southern states have unique and distinctive styles.

In Kentucky, the classic American beaker was remade into the Julep Cup with straight body lines and graceful moldings at the base and rim by the early craftsmen Asa Blanchard of Lexington and William and Archibald Cooper of Louisville.

Popular throughout the early South, the Julep Cup has long been a symbol of achievement, esteem and prestige. For over 200 years Kentuckians have given, received, and used their julep cup at events like christenings, weddings, fairs and of course, the races.

Kentucky Derby Glasses

About Kentucky Derby Mint Julep Glasses

While the concept of serving mint juleps was not new, the development of the Mint Julep Glass came later.

Many people think that Kentucky Derby Mint Julep glasses started in 1938, but although the confusion is understandable, they did not. What happened in 1938 is that instead of serving their mint juleps in paper cups, Churchill Downs served them in tall water glasses and people kept stealing them.

So the following year in 1939 Churchill Downs created a promotional piece — the birth of the Kentucky Derby Mint Julep Glass — that people could purchase and keep as a souvenir of their visit to the Kentucky Derby.

In 1939, the Libbey Glass Company of Toledo, Ohio was contracted to create the glasses in color, which made them more attractive for mint julep sales. Reportedly the initial sales increased threefold. Since that time, Libbey of Toledo, Ohio has manufactured nearly all of the mint julep glasses.
Since its 1938 inception, the Kentucky Derby Mint Julep Glass has grown in popularity and is often viewed as the leading Kentucky Derby collectible. As with many items, the value of a Kentucky Derby glass is based in its rarity. From 1938 through 1952 less than 100,000 Kentucky Derby glasses were annually produced.

In 1966, the production numbers rose to 250,000, followed by an increase to 400,000 for the 100th running of the race in 1974. In 1985 the production hit 500,000 and today it stands at 700,000.

Interestingly enough, until 1974, only Churchill Downs sold Derby glasses, making the limited supply the perfect collectible. After 1974, various retail outlets began selling the glasses in honor of the 100th Derby.

Over the years some modifications have occurred. In 1940-1941, over apparent concern for broken glass found on the racetrack grounds, aluminum tumblers were employed. During the war years 1942-1943-1944, aluminum was at a premium, as a replacement glass, the Beetleware Company produced a ceramic-type tumbler of various colors.


Sterling Silver Julep Cups

Churchill Downs President Bill Corum introduced the Sterling Silver julep cups in 1951. The idea of a sterling silver julep cup was an idea of Col. Matt Winn, Corum’s predecessor who died in 1949. Winn had discussed with Downs’s officials his feeling that there should be another official, useful souvenir of the Kentucky Derby.

The cups feature a small horseshoe and they hold 12 fluid ounces. The julep cup plays an important role in Kentucky Derby folklore.

Traditionally, the governor of Kentucky salutes the victorious Derby owner with a toast at the fashionable Winner’s Party following the race.

Looking for a classic Mint Julep Recipe? Check out or favorite here.

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