Mocktails, "My Old Kentucky Home," and How The Kentucky Derby Helped To Shape The Mocktail Project Mission
Our city’s own Muhammad Ali once said: “A man who views the world the same at fifty as he did at twenty has wasted thirty years of his life.” This year, our world changed at the 145th running of the Kentucky Derby.
If you’ve ever visited Churchill Downs for the Kentucky Derby, chances are you’ve indulged in at least one of the track’s famous Mint Juleps. The iconic bourbon cocktail has been the official drink of the Kentucky Derby since 1938, though its history dates all the way back to 1803.
With such rich history, most Kentuckians view the Derby as much more than a horse race. It’s a single day when the world pauses and wonders what life is really like in Kentucky. For us Kentuckians, it is a celebration, a time to come together to create new memories, see old friends, indulge in great food and drink, and attend the most lavish events of the year. To me, the Kentucky Derby signifies tradition.
Both my personal journey in sobriety and what later became the foundation of The Mocktail Project started five years ago on the first Saturday of May, during one impactful moment in my life at the Kentucky Derby. I was just three weeks removed from making the personal choice to become a non-drinker after years of an unhealthy relationship with alcohol. I remember consulting with a close friend and asking him, should I really be attending the Kentucky Derby with only a few weeks of sobriety under my belt?
The morning line favorite that year was California Chrome, a horse offering high hopes of winning the all elusive triple crown. With 164,906 attendees, that year’s Derby charted as the second largest in history at that point in time. I recall the experience vividly: the electric energy of the crowd, the drinks, the smell of cigars in the air, the beautiful guests with their big hats and tailored suits. I remember doing my best to stay in the moment and focus on sharing a special day with my friends, rather than feeling distracted by the thought that I personally needed an alcoholic beverages to enjoy the Kentucky Derby. For the most part I found myself doing well, that was until “My Old Kentucky Home” started to play. It is a tradition like no other. It’s a moment when everyone in the track stands, wraps their arms around their neighbor, raises their glass, and sings along to the famed song as the horses of the Kentucky Derby trot to their posts to compete for the garland of roses.
Sounds like the perfect Saturday in May, right? Yet there I was, a Kentucky boy and proud native to this wonderful state, and I was paralyzed. I was frozen in time as I looked around the track and for the first time, I felt different. My friends, neighbors, and everyone surrounding me had their hands in the air, waving around their drink of choice. And there I was, empty-handed, wondering to myself, will the rest of my life be consumed by attending events but never really fitting in? It was the first time I ever noticed that certain individuals for many different reasons didn’t necessarily fit in. I was sober, all but a small fraction of the 30% of Americans who don’t imbibe - the expecting mothers, designated drivers, non-drinkers - also weren’t sharing that moment with everyone else.
This year, at nearly five years to the day of attending my first sober Kentucky Derby, I didn’t miss the opportunity to raise my glass during “My Old Kentucky Home.” I shared that moment with a few close friends and 160,000 other attendees. For the first time in 145 years, with the support of Old Forester, The Mocktail Project provided a new option at Churchill Downs: mocktails.
For those of you learning about The Mocktail Project for the very first time, we are a grassroots movement focused on helping to create a safer and more inclusive drinking culture. Our slogan is “Creating social spaces where mocktails and cocktails can co-exist.”
This year’s Kentucky Derby offered two mocktail options, a fun riff on the Oaks day Lilly which included a local favorite, Ale-8-One, and a delicious alternative to the Mint Julep co-created by Jackie Zykan, master taste tester for Old Forester. For two days we crafted and served mocktails to expecting mothers, designated drivers, those in recovery, and guests just taking a break. The highlight of our weekend was when Super Bowl MVP and Denver Broncos’ Von Miller left the set of NBC Sports to come enjoy a mocktail with us!
Our space provided an opportunity for guests to rest and rehydrate. It was a place where expecting mothers could get off their feet and share a laugh with their friends while sipping on a beverage created just for them. Our booth provided the opportunity for parents to share a drink with their children. It was a space where those who no longer consume alcohol could feel comfortable, important, special, and included.
During the week leading up to the Kentucky Derby, we shared many spaces where cocktails and mocktails co-existed. We collaborated with the Derby Diversity Summit, an important mission-driven organization that brings together top Minority, Women, LGBTQ, Veteran and Disabled business enterprises to develop, network, and “Derby” like a local. We also partnered with Old Forester to craft an alternative beverage menu for their Thurby event at George’s Bar and Downtown Louisville Distillery on Whiskey Row. Lastly, we found ourselves representative at the Original Makers Club Oaks day event presented by Woodford Reserve at the Omni Louisville.
As the founder, I may have started The Mocktail Project for personal reasons as a non-drinker, but over the past three years the mission has grown immensely. For the nearly 30% of Americans who choose not to imbibe, The Mocktail Project works to ensure that everyone feels welcomed in all social environments. This is the core of The Mocktail Project’s mission, and it hasn’t changed. It was my experience of feeling left out at the Kentucky Derby five years ago that has motivated The Mocktail Project’s vision of ensuring that mocktails will be accessible in all social environments one day. We understand that this year’s Derby was a big step toward that vision, and it was made possible through the incredible support from brands like Brown-Forman and Old Forester that truly care about creating a better drinking.
This year’s Derby will forever be a milestone and amazing learning experience. It is an opportunity for us to grow and become better. To recapture the sentiment of the great Ali, if we view The Mocktail Project and our success at this year’s Kentucky Derby in the exact same way next year, we’ll have wasted an entire year to make this project even better.
For those of you who shared a mocktail with us at the Kentucky Derby or on Oaks day, thank you. We had patrons share with us that they searched for over an hour to seek out our space; we appreciate your support. Thank you to those who shared social media posts and reposts, for opening up to us about your personal journeys and why a mocktail option in a space like the Derby meant so much to you. This year was fun, but next year will be epic.
A special thanks to our dear friends at Old Forester and Brown-Forman for their support in helping us Derby this year! To Jackie Zykan and her team for helping us co-create a delicious non-alcoholic option to pair with the famous Mint Julep; to Churchill Downs for providing a beautiful space, and to Krogers for helping supply our ingredients. To the Business Bar, our close friends, and our family who helped Derby become a reality for The Mocktail Project this year, you all are the best!
If you know someone who enjoys a good mocktail let them know about our mission. They can follow our journey on social media at @themocktailproject. And next time you’re sipping on a tasty mocktail, let us know by using the hashtag #shareamocktail to spread the good word with our community!
If you would like to learn more about The Mocktail Project, how you can get involved, become a community partner, have us craft a mocktail at your next event, or make a charitable contribution to help support our mission, visit www.themocktailproject or contact our founder at Jesse@themocktailproject.com
As always, sip responsible, share a mocktail.
Jesse, Mocktail and Coffee Enthusiast
Believer that the world needs more mocktails.