A detail of mint juleps packed in pack ice during the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs.
 A detail of mint juleps packed in pack ice during the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs. - 
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On the first Saturday in May, more than 150,000 people will pile into Churchill Downs for the Kentucky Derby.

They will place bets, root for their picks — and they'll drink. The rise of sponsored cocktails has become a sure bet for race organizers looking to make more money trackside.

“A mint julep basically is mint, simple syrup and bourbon, if you’re in Kentucky,” according to Chris Goodlett, chief curator at the Kentucky Derby Museum. “So in 1875, at the first Kentucky Derby, we would have had mint juleps.”

Each year, about 120,000 juleps are sold trackside for about $10 a piece. Since 2017, they’ve been made exclusively with Woodford Reserve bourbon, the spirits sponsor of Derby day. For decades, the cocktail has been a major moneymaker for race organizers.

But the Kentucky Derby isn’t the only race that takes place at Churchill Downs during the first week of May. The day before the Derby is called the Oaks — it’s the Friday running of the fillies. In 2006, race organizers decided it needed an official cocktail as well, one that would incorporate Finlandia vodka, the brand that sponsors that race. 

They contacted Tim Laird, a mixologist who has written books about Derby entertaining.

“It was actually based on ... at that time, 13 years ago, the biggest cocktail was the cosmopolitan,” Laird said. So, he created a $9 vodka and cranberry cocktail. He called it the Oaks Lily, named after the wreath of pink lilies draped over the winning filly’s neck. In the first year, the bars at Churchill Downs sold about 50,000 of them.

“On Oaks Day, I saw this line — it had to be at least four blocks long, not kidding,” Laird said. According to Laird, Lily sales on Oaks now rival Julep sales on Derby Day.

Now, there’s another sponsored cocktail. It’s sold the Thursday before the Kentucky Derby, referred to by some as “Thurby Day.” As the main race on Saturday gets more popular and expensive to attend, Thurby is a more affordable way for locals to hit the track. In 2018, Old Forester bourbon sponsored Thurby, making Thursday's signature cocktail an Old Forester old-fashioned.

“You have hometown bourbon, hometown race. So right now, that’s the signature drink of Thurby,” said Laird.

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