September 27, 2023 2:43 pm

Woodford Reserve: Official Bourbon of the Kentucky Derby

Woodford Reserve Renews Vows as Official Bourbon of the Kentucky Derby:
Plans Special Barrel for 150th Run for the Roses at Churchill Downs

When many people think of Kentucky, their first thoughts run to bourbon and the Kentucky Derby. Woodford Reserve Kentucky Bourbon has been the “official bourbon” of America’s most famous thoroughbred horse race for 23 years and its Presenting Sponsor since 2018.

Churchill Downs, home of the race, and Woodford Reserve recently renewed this marketing marriage for at least 5 more years.

The partners originally planned a news conference for the announcement at the historic racetrack in Louisville. Because of significant construction going on there, the event was moved to the offices of Brown-Forman Corporation, Woodford Reserve’s parent company.

After officials from both companies spoke, Woodford Reserve Master Distiller Chris Morris and Assistant Master Distiller Elizabeth McCall offered a toast:

“Here’s to Woodford Reserve’s first 23 years as the first official bourbon of the Kentucky Derby… 1999 to 2022,” Morris said.

And McCall added, “And to Derby 24 and all the Derbies beyond. And to the greatest two ounces in bourbon and to the greatest two minutes in sports. Cheers!”

The toast was made with the Woodford Reserve Spire cocktail that Morris debuted at the Derby in 2018. (See recipe below)

Afterward, I asked Morris why this partnership was so important to both companies. “This is a perfect partnership because the Woodford Reserve distillery is located in Woodford County, in the heart of thoroughbred horse breeding country, surrounded by iconic horse farms,” Morris said. “Limestone water is a common theme that makes our thoroughbreds great and our great Woodford Reserve as delicious as it is.  Woodford Reserve is the number one selling super premium American whiskey in the world. We are an ambassador for the industry. We are an ambassador for Kentucky, as is the Derby, so it’s a perfect partnership to spread the word that Kentucky is a fun place to visit.”

Some other Brown-Forman spirits brands are joining the Derby sponsorship list. Old Forester serves as the “Official Mint Julep of the Kentucky Derby” and sponsors Thurby (Thursday of Derby Week when the locals come out in all their finery to avoid the crowds and cost of the next two days.) Finlandia Vodka is the main ingredient of the Oaks Lily Cocktail served at the Kentucky Oaks filly race on Friday. And Herradura tequila cocktails will be available at the track throughout Derby week.

Reserve Spire Cocktail

  • 1.5 ounces Woodford Reserve Kentucky Bourbon

  • 2 ounces lemonade

  • 1 ounce cranberry juice

  • Lemon twist

Add ingredients to mixing glass and stir.

Pour over ice.

Garnish with a lemon twist.

Artistry, Bourbon, and Horse Racing

The Kentucky Derby is always held on the first Saturday in May. It is touted as the nation’s oldest continually-held sporting event, beginning at Churchill Downs in 1875.

Since the start of the partnership, Woodford Reserve has issued a unique Kentucky Derby commemorative bottle featuring original race themed artwork created each year by a different artist.

The artist and artwork for the 24th Woodford Reserve Kentucky Derby bottle will be announced soon.

The 20th anniversary of the partnership between the race and the bourbon was celebrated in 2019 with a special exhibit at the Frazier Museum on Louisville’s Whiskey Row downtown.  “Woodford Reserve & The Kentucky Derby: Two Decades of Artistry, Bourbon, and Horse Racing” was an amazing exhibit featuring all 20 bottles and the original artwork used on the labels.

A Sneak Peek at Derby 150

The other big news of the day was a sneak peek ahead to next year’s 150th edition of the Run for the Roses. Woodford Reserve will have a rare (still unannounced) bourbon next year to honor this major milestone.

Looking to add special notes to this bourbon, Woodford Reserve will build a barrel made of staves that are now seasoning (sitting in the open air) in the winners circle at Churchill Downs. The staves will spend two months on the ground at the track, in addition to the traditional eight or nine months of seasoning they’ve already had.

McCall told me,“This is the first time anyone has ever seasoned wood there…the wood is sitting on the hallowed ground where all those Derby winners have gotten the wonderful garlands of roses draped over their shoulders in the past.”

McCall noted that seasoning in open air softens the wood by removing tannins that can add a harsher taste to the bourbon. McCall said she’s excited to see what the different environment at Churchill Downs will bring to the wood and ultimately to the whiskey.

One could speculate that the process for the special 150th Derby bourbon will be similar to the Double Double Oaked process that Morris just released, spending time in two barrels.

"Whisky is liquid sunshine."

George Bernard Shaw

“The light music of whiskey falling into a glass – an agreeable interlude.”

James Joyce

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