A Taste of History: The Souvenir Kentucky Derby Glass

The Life
For many fans, the mint julep at the Kentucky Derby is a treat but the souvenir glass is even better. (Eclipse Sportswire)

After the 1938 Kentucky Derby, the Churchill Downs staff noticed that they were short more than a few water glasses. Fans, it turned out, were stealing the glasses to take home as souvenirs of their big day at the races.

The track had an idea: rather than continue to lose glassware to pilfering fans, why not make a special glass they could sell to fans to commemorate the day?

Souvenir Derby glasses are very popular. (Eclipse Sportswire)

Churchill Downs had a contract with Harry Stevens and brought him the idea. Stevens had built a successful business as a catering company for sporting venues, but he got his start as a teenage ice cream vendor at baseball parks, where he invented the hot dog. As an adult he would do for horse racing what he did for baseball as a young man — he developed an iconic sports concession.

The next year, 1939, Churchill Downs offered the first-ever commemorative Kentucky Derby glass. The drink they chose to serve in the glass was none other than the mint julep. Prior to 1939, the mint julep was already a popular drink in Kentucky. Though it started out in Virginia as a high-society beverage served in goblets with brandy or rum, the poorer denizens of Kentucky chose to mix the drink with a more proletariat liquor: bourbon. The bourbon mint julep survived as the quintessential version of the drink, served at Kentucky county fairs throughout the 19th century.

One of the earliest stories of the mint julep being served at the Kentucky Derby was told by writer Jim Bolus in his book “Kentucky Derby Stories.” Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr., the flamboyant founder of the race, often held lavish parties and entertained celebrities and dignitaries from all over the world in an effort to draw attention to the event. In 1877, during the third running of the Derby, he hosted a Polish count and his wife, a famous actress named Helena Modjeska. Clark mixed a mint julep for his guests in a large silver bowl, which was traditionally passed around the table for everyone to take turns drinking from. Clark handed the bowl to Modjeska, and offered a toast: “This is for you, first of all, Madame. We drink to the greatest race of all time, the Kentucky Derby.” Modjeska took a sip, then rather than pass the bowl, she declared the drink to be “supreme” and asked Clark to fix one for her husband as well.

Selling the drinks in the special glasses more than tripled drink sales at the track. In the early years, there were fewer than 100,000 commemorative glasses made. Today, more than 700,000 are made each year.

Go into any Kentuckian’s china cabinet and you’re sure to see a collection of them. Some of the rare glasses can fetch thousands of dollars from collectors.

Each year, the glasses feature a different design and color scheme, and they carry the names of all of the previous Kentucky Derby winners. The 1974 glass is a popular one for collectors. That year, an error was made on the list of past Derby winners. The 1971 winner was listed as Canonero rather than Canonero II. An estimated 450,000 glasses were produced before the error was noticed. As a result, there are six different versions of the glass in existence!

The 2024 Derby glass design has already been revealed, with two versions for the 150th anniversary of the race, and you can purchase one of them online. They should be big collector’s items. Get one for your collection. But if you’re having a Derby party, get a lot of them. The bowl thing doesn’t really fly anymore.

Note: This story was originally published in 2016 and has been updated.


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