5 Mint Julep Alternatives for Derby Day

When Woodford Reserve became presenting sponsor of the Kentucky Derby in 2018, it introduced the Woodford Spire, a drink that pays homage to Churchill Downs’s iconic twin spires.

5 Mint Julep Alternatives for Derby Day

May 3, 2023 –––––– Tom Wilmes, , , ,

The Mint Julep is synonymous with the Kentucky Derby. On the first Saturday in May, Kentuckians everywhere feel it’s only proper to have a Mint Julep in hand while belting out “My Old Kentucky Home” before horses and jockeys parade onto the track. At Churchill Downs, more than 120,000 Mint Juleps are served over the course of the day. There’s even a $1,000 version served in a collectible silver julep cup, sponsored annually by Woodford Reserve to benefit charity.

While the Mint Julep has been served at every Kentucky Derby since the first one in 1875—the first official souvenir glass was offered at the 1939 Derby after fans absconded with many unofficial glasses the prior year—the drink’s origins are much older. “The Julep is basically a specific type of cordial,” says Tim Knittel, the official bourbon ambassador of Churchill Downs.

Working out of Matt Winn’s Steakhouse, which is located within Churchill Downs, Knittel oversees bourbon curation, pairing suggestions, and education. “What we recognize as a modern Mint Julep came out of Virginia in the late 1700s to early 1800s. It was a high-proof drink made with brandy or rum and often consumed in the morning. The Kentucky Derby cemented it as a bourbon drink.”

While it’s tough to top the Mint Julep as a Derby Day treat, we’ve found some great alternatives for those looking to mix it up a bit. Here we present five Derby-inspired drinks to sip and savor as the horses get ready to run. These stylish cocktails all use bourbon, but it’s blended with alternatives including champagne, orange liqueur, lemonade, ginger ale and sweet vermouth. Hats off to these race day drinks!


Seelbach Cocktail

Created by The Seelbach Hotel, Louisville

An elegant way to begin Derby Day, the signature drink of Louisville’s oldest hotel is a pre-Prohibition cocktail that combines bourbon’s sweet, spicy profile with a touch of citrus and effervescence.

  • 1 oz. bourbon (Old Forester is traditional)
  • ½ oz. orange liqueur
  • 3 dashes Angostura bitters
  • 4 dashes Peychaud’s bitters
  • 5 oz. champagne or sparkling wine Orange twist for garnish

Build in a fluted glass in the order given and garnish with an orange twist.

Mint Coupe

Created by Tim Knittel, official bourbon ambassador of Churchill Downs

This slow-sipper nods to a Julep with mint-infused flavor, while allowing the bourbon’s higher proof and subtleties to shine with less sweetness and a touch of dilution.

  • 1½ oz. Larceny Barrel Proof bourbon (or other barrel-proof bourbon)
  • 3-4 mint leaves Mint sprig for garnish

Pre-chill a coupe with ice and water. Place mint leaves in a shaker, add ice and bourbon. Shake quickly but gently. Discard ice from coupe and double-strain drink into the chilled glass. Garnish with mint sprig.


Jockey Club (Manhattan Style)

Recipe first referenced in the 1887 edition of Jerry Thomas’s Bartenders Guide

Likely originating around the same time as the Manhattan, this slightly sweeter version takes its name from the New York-based organization, founded in 1894, that maintains a breed registry of thoroughbred horses.

  • 2 oz. bourbon
  • 1 oz. sweet vermouth
  • ¼ oz. maraschino liqueur
  • 3 dashes Angostura bitters
  • Maraschino cherry for garnish

Add ingredients to a mixing glass, add ice, and stir until chilled. Strain into a martini glass or coupe and garnish with a maraschino cherry.


Woodford Spire

Created by Woodford Reserve

When Woodford Reserve became presenting sponsor of the Kentucky Derby in 2018, it introduced a signature drink that pays homage to Churchill Downs’s iconic twin spires. Light and refreshing, it has quickly become a Derby Day favorite.

  • 1½ oz. Woodford Reserve bourbon
  • 2 oz. lemonade
  • 1 oz. cranberry juice Lemon twist for garnish

Build drink in a tall glass with ice. Stir and garnish with a lemon twist.


Horse’s Neck

Traditional, originally alcohol-free, and likely dating to the late 1800s

While its name refers to the long, curling lemon twist used to garnish this bracing cocktail, many bettors are hoping an actual horse’s neck will also be their margin of victory.

  • 2 oz. bourbon
    Ginger ale to taste
    Lemon spiral for garnish

Using a channel knife or citrus peeler, peel a lemon in a long, even strip. Add bourbon and ice to a tall glass and top with ginger ale. Garnish with lemon twist.