How The Kentucky Bourbon Became
A Symbol Of The Derby


There are few more famous sporting events than the Kentucky Derby, with millions tuning in to watch the race annually from all corners of the globe. Such is the historical and cultural impact of the race, it has held a special place in the hearts of locals throughout history, leading to a number of key traditions surrounding the race becoming extremely popular.

Some of these traditions have also played their role in the long-term success of products in other sectors, with none experiencing more success than bourbon. The drink is synonymous with the Derby in this current day, but where did the association come from, and how has the race helped the drink reach a new demographic?

History of the Derby

The early history of the Kentucky Derby can be traced back to 1872 when Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr traveled to England to visit Epsom. During his visit, he attended the Epsom Derby, which ignited his passion for horse racing, and birthed the idea of adding a similar type of race to the American schedule.

This passion reached a new level during a trip to France where he spoke to members that had recently set up the French Jockey Club in 1863. After returning to Kentucky, Clark shared his idea of a Derby-type race being added to the U.S. schedule with the Louisville Jockey Club, and plans were quickly put into place to fundraise to fund the money required to build Churchill Downs.

Following this, the Derby was born in 1896, over five years after 20 years after Clark’s visit to Epsom. The first running of the Derby was staged over the Epsom distance, with the popularity increasing year-on-year, evident from the fact that 10,000 fans packed into Churchill for the inaugural running of the race.

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History of Kentucky Bourbon

Bourbon almost boasts a history that is as esteemed as the Kentucky Derby, with its roots in the United States dating back following its recognition by Congress in 1964. During this session, it was deemed to be a ‘distinctive product’ of the U.S., meaning that a declared set of rules for producing the liquor were established. In fact, the rules that were passed through law in the 60s remain as prominent as ever in this modern day, with many distilleries still following the same guidelines.

Among the key notes from the congress were the rules that bourbon must be produced in the United States, and the recipe must include at least 51% corn. Furthermore, each batch must also be stored in a charred oak barrel. However, bourbon has endured a mixed history with U.S. people, with prohibition restricting its popularity between 1920 and 1933.

However, this law saw bourbon and whiskey maintain popularity in underground bars, with many opting to buy bootlegged versions of the drink during this period. Nowadays, people from Kentucky are extremely proud of their bourbon routes, with no shortage of companies priding themselves on offering the drink from the most locally sourced produce.

How The Derby and Bourbon Meet

The history shared between the Derby and Bourbon can be found by attending the meeting in this modern day, as the Mint Julep is one of the preferred drinks among those that attend. The drink is the unofficial drink of the South, and it has been the official drink for the Kentucky Derby since 1938. It is unlikely that any visitor to Churchill Downs would order anything other than a Julep for their first drink of the day.

Bourbon is the key ingredient in the Julep, but there is more to the recipe than just the alcohol. As well as the liquor, a Mint Julep is made up of water, crushed ice, sugar, and fresh mint. It is also important to note that Juleps in the South are traditionally served in silver or pewter cups.

The history of the Julep dates back further than its association with the Derby, as it was a popular cocktail in the United States throughout the 1700s to help those with unsettled stomachs. However, during this period, it wasn’t easily accessible to everyone, as it was typically consumed by the wealthiest people in the South due to the need for ice or a pewter cup.

However, the success of the drink has reached new heights since enjoying an excellent relationship with the Kentucky Derby. Stats have found that over 120,000 Juleps are consumed on a Derby race day, with that figure increasing when taking into account the number of orders throughout the week before attending Churchill Downs.

The success that the drink has enjoyed since beginning its association with the Derby looks set to continue for years to come, with hundreds of thousands of visitors passing through the gates at Churchill Downs on an annual basis.

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