The history of the Kentucky Derby Mint Julep began with unremarkable origins, as the first 1938 glasses were actually water glasses. According to racetrack folklore, the glasses were so popular that they disappeared from the tables in the track’s dining rooms. Track management decided to charge dining room patrons an extra .25 cents if they wanted to keep the 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, shortly followed by an increase to 400,000 for the 100th running of the race in 1974. In 1985 the production run hit to 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, retail outlets began selling the glasses in honor of the 100th 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 Kentucky Derby Mint Julep glasses.
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.
There have been many different designs on the glasses over the years, generally the Twin Spires, the name Kentucky Derby and racehorses have been featured. The Kentucky Oaks received its first ever glass in 2005 as the Libbey Company produced a limited order of 7,200. Today this roll has now grown to 50,000.