Ken Hoskins visits Churchill Downs racetrack in Kentucky in an attempt to understand the people of Kentucky's keen taste for \rhorse racing, bourbon and the Mint Julep
It isn’t difficult to imagine that the two products for which Kentucky has become world famous just might have arrived on the American frontier together, literally – whiskey stills on horseback. Well maybe it didn’t happen quite like that, but there’s no question the Virginia horses that would become the foundation of Kentucky’s great thoroughbred industry and the whiskey distilling Scotch-Irish of Pennsylvania all showed up in the late 1700s to claim the Bluegrass region as their own. After all, the same sweet limestone spring water that makes great bourbon whiskey also is said to make for strong bones. And the soil that gives Kentucky its trademark pastures of ‘blue’ grass also produces the plentiful corn that settlers adopted to turn their European-style rye whiskies into bourbon (of course, they added the charred oak barrel, too). So bourbon whiskey and thoroughbreds have always shared a common history dating to Kentucky’s earliest days. Since 1875, however, there has been one day every year when this co-mingled history and symbiotic relationship have come together most dramatically (save for Prohibition from 1920 to 1933). That’s the first Saturday in May at Louisville’s famed Churchill Downs race track, where the finest three-year-old thoroughbreds in the world compete for the sport’s most prestigious title and the 100,000-plus spectators guzzle Mint Julep whiskey cocktails by the thousands of gallons. The 127th Run for the Roses this year was no exception. Catering General Manager Andy Meckler says 95,000 Mint Juleps were sold on Derby Day and the preceding day at the running of the Kentucky Oaks. Now, the basic Mint Julep is just simple syrup, whiskey (normally bourbon) and mint over shaved ice. However, when you mix them in Kentucky Derby quantities the volumes become rather amazing – over 8,000 gallons of syrup, 150 bushels of mint, 60,000 tons (yes, tons) of shaved ice and somewhere around 2,250 gallons of whiskey. “Everybody’s got to have at least one Mint Julep, whether they like it or not,” says Meckler. In fact, lots of Derby-goers have many more than one, whether they like them or not. Each julep, priced at $6.50 (multiply that by 95,000 sold at the Kentucky Oaks and on Derby Day and that’s $617,500 banked in two races!), comes in a specially decorated souvenir glass with all the previous Derby winners listed. It’s a tradition dating to before World War II and some of those early glasses today fetch premium prices amongst collectors. As thousands streamed for the exits following the big race this year, there was the usual scene of julep drinkers balancing teetering stacks of glasses as they themselves teetered from beneath the Twin Spires on their way home. Most of these folks think they have been drinking bourbon all day, but not so. The Early Times Mint Julep is the official
cocktail of Churchill Downs and Early Times is an 80 proof “Old Style Kentucky Whisky” aged at least three years in reused oak barrels (bourbon is required by law to be aged in new oak barrels). Early Times is a product of the Brown-Forman Corporation of Louisville, a Fortune 500 company that also produces Old Forester Kentucky straight bourbon whisky, Woodford Reserve Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey, Jack Daniel’s Tennessee whiskey and Canadian Mist. In addition, the company is the US distributor for Glenmorangie single malt Scotch whiskies, Glen Moray single malt Scotch whiskies, Ardberg Islay malt whisky and Usher’s Scotch whisky. Chris Morris, named this summer by Brown-Forman to succeed the retiring Lincoln Henderson as Master Distiller, said Early Times was the first whisky to become directly involved in thoroughbred racing when it began sponsorship of a
turf stakes race at Churchill Downs about 15 years ago. Yet when Brown-Forman resurrected its historic Labrot & Graham Distillery in the heart of the Bluegrass horse country several years ago its signature Woodford Reserve (90.4 proof aged six to seven years) became the official Bourbon of Churchill Downs and Early Times assumed its cocktail status. Today, according to Morris, Brown-Forman has become a strategic marketing partner with Churchill Downs Inc., which also now owns and operates five other thoroughbred tracks from Florida to California. “There is a Woodford Reserve Turf Classic race at each of the tracks, as well as a race sponsored by Jack Daniel’s,” he said, adding that the tracks also feature other Brown-Forman-distributed spirits such as Southern Comfort liqueur, Korbel Champagne, Fetzer California wines and Finlandia vodka.
While Early Times may have been the first modern whisky linked to horse racing, 1914 Derby winner Old Rosebud is the only one of 127 Derby winners named after a bourbon. And, the interrelationship of horse racing and bourbon in Louisville predates both Churchill Downs and Brown-Forman. In the 1820s, harrowing spur-of-the-moment horse races on the downtown Market Street were banished to a turf course built at the Hope Distillery in nearby Portland. Ironically, this distillery was launched in 1815 as the first attempt to mass-produce Kentucky bourbon for the American East Coast market. Hope Distillery struggled on until being closed in 1850, but by then other racetracks and lots of other distilleries had been established to satisfy Kentuckians’ keen taste for racing horses and drinking bourbon.
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