- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 1, 2003


In springtime, when the dogwoods are in bloom and the parties reach a crescendo before the Kentucky Derby, nothing here seems a more natural mix than bourbon and horse racing.

Kentucky’s two greatest gifts have been intertwined since the earliest days of this Ohio River city. When the first oval horse track was built here in 1819, it encircled a bourbon distillery.

“Bourbon is from Kentucky, and this is the epicenter of horse racing,” said Chris Morris, a master distiller in training at spirits giant Brown-Forman. “It’s appropriate that bourbon is associated with horses.”

The bond has strengthened through the years. Bourbons were named Kentucky Sire and Kentucky Stallion, brands that faded away long ago. The Derby winner in 1914, Old Rosebud, was named for a distiller and bourbon brand.

Bourbon is the key ingredient in the drink most associated with the Derby the mint julep 100,000 of which are sold at Churchill Downs in the two days of the Kentucky Oaks, the traditional race for fillies, and the Derby.

“Life is good on the first Saturday in May,” said Tony Terry, a track spokesman. “In one hand, a bet on the Kentucky Derby, in the other hand a mint julep.”

Julep recipes vary slightly, but ingredients include bourbon, sugar, crushed ice and fresh mint.

“It’s a nice, leisurely pace of a day,” Mr. Morris said. “And a julep is a nice, leisurely pace of a cocktail.”

Bourbon tasting is taken so seriously at downtown Louisville’s swanky Seelbach Hotel that the hotel bar stocks 44 different bourbon whiskeys. The name of anyone sampling every brand is engraved on a gold plate nailed into the bar.

“We have a checkoff card for each bourbon sample, so you don’t have to do it at once,” beverage manager Marty Pearl said.

Each spring, the Seelbach bar christens a new bourbon drink. This year’s concoction was dubbed Dawn at the Downs. Ingredients include bourbon, orange liqueur, orange juice, apricot brandy, lemon juice and angostura bitters.

“It kind of has the look of a sunrise over a foggy bluegrass,” said Jerry Slater, maitre d’ at the Oakroom, the Seelbach’s five-diamond restaurant where the specialty is a grilled pork chop marinated in bourbon.

On Derby week, the bar attracts a lineup of high rollers: captains of industry, horse owners and international travelers. The bar has the feel of an old gentleman’s club, with its dark paneling, dim lighting and photos of Derby winners on the wall.

The excitement reaches a peak on Derby Day.

“You see the parade of large hats that leave the building,” Mr. Slater said. “In the middle of the day, you can shoot a cannon ball through because everybody is at the track, there’s nobody here. And then it starts flooding in, and there’s the excitement of the night.”

The bartenders tout Kentucky bourbons to out-of-town guests. Within an hour’s drive of Louisville, more than a dozen distilleries lie among the green hills and bubbling streams of Kentucky. Knowing subtle taste differences among brands is considered an art form.

Like thousands of other race fans at Churchill Downs on Saturday, Mr. Morris said he planned to sip juleps while scanning the racing form in search of a winner.

“It’s our Mardi Gras, our Super Bowl, our Final Four,” Mr. Morris said. “It’s our day in the sun.”

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