How the History of Kentucky Bourbon Blends with the Derby

Horse racing is an amazing sport that is unique and sets itself apart. But not only about the thrills of the races, but the blend of history and tradition. Most of the races carefully follow their roots for everything, I mean everything!

From dress code to food and drinks, everything is like a time capsule that can bring you back to the roots of the sport.

Since we talk about horse racing, let’s do a deep dive into the history of one of the most popular races. The Kentucky Derby!

It’s a true spectacle of a race, and this year is their 150th anniversary, therefore there will be a special Kentucky Derby bourbon edition. Bourbon is as important to the race as the 2024 Kentucky Derby betting guide since it is the state’s official alcoholic drink.

How it All Started

Let’s trot back to the 1870s. The Kentucky Derby, a brainchild of Col. Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr. (yes, the grandson of that Lewis from Lewis and Clark), was inspired by the Epsom Derby and wanted to recreate the same atmosphere in the United States.

If we go back to 1875, we come to the first Kentucky Derby with a crowd of 10,000 people and 15 horses galloping to victory. But it wasn’t all roses and horseplay; there were financial hurdles that nearly ended the Derby before it truly began.

Enter Col. Matt Winn and his investor pals, turning the event into the powerhouse it is today. Fast forward, and we have the Kentucky Derby on the first Saturday in May, starting the much-hyped Triple Crown.

Kentucky Bourbon’s Beginnings

Bourbon and controversy go way back, like to the 1800s. The U.S. Congress in 1964 declared bourbon a “distinctive product of the United States,” with rules that are still followed today. But let’s not forget Prohibition, which turned the history of bourbon into more of a legend than a clear record.

The name “bourbon” itself likely nods to the French Bourbon Dynasty, influencing places like Bourbon County in Kentucky. The early whiskey and bourbon-making in the U.S. can be traced back to individuals like David Nicholson, a St. Louis grocer who sold whiskey in 1843.

The combination of Bourbon and Kentucky Derby Horse Racing

Now, imagine you’re at the first Derby in 1875. You’d probably be carrying your own flask filled with bourbon, as disposable cups were a thing of the future.

The quality of bourbon back then was, let’s say, less consistent, lacking the standards we see post-bottled in the Bond Act of 1897 and other consumer protection acts.

The Drink Through the Ages

Even though the Bourbon was fine for horse racing events like the Kentucky Derby, the race needed something more elegant, and suitable for both men and women. On top of that, creating a signature cocktail using their most popular ingredients like Bourbon is a great way to extend their tradition.

Enter the Mint Julep, the unofficial drink of the South and the official drink of the Derby since 1938. It started as a medicinal concoction and became a high-society cocktail by the late 1700s. Now, think about this: nearly 120,000 mint juleps are sold at the Derby each year. That’s a lot of bourbon and mint!

Mint Julep: How It Made?

The Mint Julep has been famous since its inception. However, julep is a type of drink made with liquor and crushed ice.

So, it comes in many flavors than just bourbon and mint, and it’s possible that the original juleps were mixed with cognac or perhaps peach brandy. Following the phylloxera outbreak of the mid-1800s, which afflicted France’s grapevines and momentarily hampered the country’s cognac trade, whiskey became the julep’s preferred spirit.

The Mint Julep is often served in a rock glass or, preferably, a silver julep cup. Because bourbon is the sole liquid in the cocktail, choose a high-quality bottle that you know you enjoy. A little higher-proof bourbon (in the mid-80s or around 90) will prevent the crushed ice from diluting the drink too rapidly.


  • 8 mint leaves
  • 1/4 ounce simple syrup
  • 2 ounces bourbon
  • For garnish use mint sprig
  • Or Angostura bitters (optional)

Once you have all the ingredients, making the Mint Julep is quite easy.

In a Julep cup or rocks glass, gently muddle the mint leaves with the simple syrup. Pour in the bourbon, then compress the glass tightly with crushed ice. Stir until the cup becomes iced on the outside. Top with extra crushed ice to create an ice dome, then garnish with a mint leaf and a few drops of bitters (optional).

A Winning Combination

Bourbon has been a constant companion at the Kentucky Derby for over a century. Initially, Derby winners were even awarded bottles of bourbon. Today, the bond between the Derby and bourbon is inseparable, with Woodford Reserve being a major present-day player as the presenting sponsor of the Derby.

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Author: James

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Sports, Whiskey