Bourbon and the Kentucky Derby

The History of Whiskey and the Kentucky Derby

Bourbon and the Kentucky Derby go back a long time. In fact, the relationship between bourbon and the famous race held at Churchill Downs, predates many of the laws and decrees of bourbon whiskey itself. The 149th Kentucky Derby was held about a month ago in Louisville, Kentucky and since then, I've thought a lot about what bourbon might have looked like back in the early days of the Kentucky Derby.


Historic Churchill Downs Racetrack

When Did Bourbon Arrive At The Derby?

Bourbon would have been with the Derby from the very beginning. By 1875 (the inaugural year of the Kentucky Derby), bourbon whiskey was a well-established subcategory of whiskey. Dozens of distilleries dotted the landscape around Kentucky. In Jefferson County alone (the county in which Churchill Downs resides), several large distilleries had already been making “bourbon whiskey” for a decade prior to the first race. Some notable distilleries in Jefferson County, KY at the time include:

  • Kentucky Bourbon Co.
  • Paul Jones Co.
  • Mellwood Distillery Co.
  • Stitzel Brothers Distillery Co.

With these large distilleries operating in such close proximity of Churchill Downs, it would be a safe bet that bourbon was present in a major way at the first race.

What Did Bourbon Look Like At That Time?

Suffice it to say, bourbon would have been packaged very differently in 1875. It’s said that George Brown was first to bottle bourbon in 1870.  Glass manufacturing was still a few years away from being to the point where disposable glass made financial sense for most bourbon producers.  Instead, a good portion of the population still carried their own flasks, jug or bottle to be filled directly from the barrels. Whiskey brands were in their formative years and even though notable bourbon brands did exist at this time, they lacked the pizazz and distinction from the brands that formed during the first half of the 20th century.

George Garvin Brown

George Garvin Brown

Arriving at the Churchill Downs racetrack in 1875, it’s likely you came with your own flask filled with your drink of choice.  Otherwise, you most likely would have had to stay seated at the bar utilizing the glass that belonged to the track. (Keep in mind, disposable cups wouldn’t be available until the next century.)

If your flask ran dry during the races, the bartender would refill it from one of several barrels behind the bar for a nominal fee. It’s probable that you weren’t given a choice as to which product you were served.  Or if you did get to pick, you’d first have to be able to decipher the distillery or rectifier label on the outside of the barrel.  Or it's plausible that you didn’t care which product you were given because it was going to be masked inside a cocktail!

Quality Of Bourbon In The 1800's

Patrons at the Kentucky Derby would have a seen an amazing transformation of the whiskey being sold at Churchill Downs over the course of its rich history. Not only from a branding and packaging standpoint, but in quality as well. At the time of the first race, the Bottled in Bond Act was decades away as would be the Taft Decision and the Pure Food and Drug Act. All of which drastically improved the quality and manufacturing standards of American whiskey over time.

Attendees to early Derby races would have had rectified whiskey and producers who were not reputable supplying the track. Without these consumer protection acts in place, product consumed would have been inconsistent from year to year- until the very early 1900's. 



The Mint Julep

Over 100,000 Mint Juleps are sold during the week of the big race each year. The Mint Julep is the signature drink of the Kentucky Derby and has been officially since 1939; however, the Mint Julep was a well-established cocktail long before and was likely abundantly present at the first Derby.

Legend has it that polish actress Helena Modjeska toasted the track’s infamous builder, Meriweather Lewis Clark, Jr. (grandson of William Clark) with a giant Mint Julep intended for multiple people. She liked it so much she drank it by herself and then ordered another. It’s alleged this happened at the 1877 Derby giving support to the assumption that the Mint Julep was around from the start.

With the dubious consistency of bourbon in the earlier days and the lack of well-aged product after prohibition, a classic cocktail such as the Mint Julep, would have been a great vessel for bourbon consumption.  

Today, a Mint Julep at Churchill Downs on Derby week is a rite of passage- on par with the pimento cheese sandwich or peach ice cream sandwich at the Masters. Even those who aren’t fans of the Mint Julep, tend to drink them during race season while collecting as many souvenir glasses as possible.


mint julep served in one of the collectible Kentucky Derby® glasses

The Test of Time

Bourbon has stood the test of time when it comes to its relationship with horse racing, more specifically, the Kentucky Derby. Both have helped the another from their inception and, in my opinion, each have made the other better. For 149 races, Kentucky bourbon has been there, and its presence continues to grow. Now, the Kentucky Derby is “Officially Presented” by one of Kentucky’s oldest whiskey companies by way of the famous brand, Woodford Reserve.


Woodford Reserve®, the Presenting Sponsor of the Kentucky Derby® 

The passion around bourbon and the Derby continue to soar while their symbiotic relationship thrives to this day. Being able to enjoy them both together is a special experience.


Andrew Wiehebrink


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