5 Bourbons for Your Derby Party
Following a couple of Pandemic years, many of us are ready to get back out and reconnect with friends, family, and adult beverages. I recently received a text from a good friend who shared that he was invited to a Kentucky Derby party and wanted to bring the perfect bottle of America's Native Spirit.
While bottles such as Blanton's or Rock Hill Farms are great bourbons in a horse-themed package, these just aren't readily available for many of us. Here are my picks for Derby-inspired bourbons that actually can be found at your local store, that come with a great Derby backstory, and won't make your pocketbook cry “Uncle”.
Woodford Reserve Distiller’s Select
As a Derby fan, it's hard to miss smooth-talking Kentucky native George Clooney as he provides the voice-over during commercials advertising the Official Bourbon of the Kentucky Derby. Woodford Reserve's flagship brand was designed as Brown-Forman's premium bourbon. The mash bill is 72% corn, 18% rye, and 10% malted barley. If you're lucky enough to find one, Woodford Reserve comes out with a commemorative Derby bottle each year (Disclosure: Yes, I may have a few of these gorgeous bottles in my display as "decorating bourbon"). While there’s no age statement present, this is generally considered to be a 6-8 year-old bourbon. The nose is a very traditional bourbon with caramel, vanilla, and a well-aged rickhouse. On the palate this remains true to the nose with vanilla and caramel, along with some light chocolate and fruit notes. Delightful on its own or over ice, this also makes a tremendous Old Fashioned. If you're willing to spend a little more, consider the Double Oaked expression - a favorite of bourbon lovers and newbies alike. For the full review, click here.
Old Forester 86/100/Whiskey Row Series
While Woodford Reserve is the official bourbon of the Kentucky Derby, if you check out one of the more than 120,000 mint juleps that are consumed as the official cocktail of the Derby, you'll find that Woodford's sibling Old Forester is the base for this signature drink. With an identical mash bill as Woodford Reserve, but using a slightly different yeast strain, this bourbon has one of the best, classic noses for the price. Filled with butterscotch and vanilla notes, along with dark
fruit, a little bit of banana and oak, this is balanced and well-rounded. While many may opt for the lower 86 proof version, the 100 proof bottle provides more versatility when served neat, on ice, or in a cocktail. If you want to move upstream, consider one of the Whiskey Row varieties, such as 1910 or 1920.
If you're looking for a great bourbon - with a thoroughbred race horse on the label - this is probably your best choice. In thoroughbred language, "pinhooking" refers to the process of selecting promising colts on the cheap and completing their training as race horses. Originally, the founders pinhooked sourced bourbon barrels and basically did the same - purchased great young bourbon and aged it until it was ready to bottle. Today, the lineup is being distilled and aged at the historic Castle & Key Distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky - site of the former Old Taylor Distillery. Pinhook releases bourbons each Spring and Fall. Particularly great releases include Bourbon War, Bourbon Heist, and Bohemian Bourbon. Each of these represent not only great bourbons, but also race horses of the same name. Bourbon War finished second in his Derby run, losing to the outstanding Code of Honor. The packaging is stellar; each long slender bottle carries an etching of the named racehorse and the top is dipped in a matching shade of wax. You'll find notes of tropical fruit, butterscotch and cedar leading to a rich and vibrant palate of dried fig, cocoa, roasted peanut and clove.
While many enjoy this bargain-shelfer's long-aged sibling, this bourbon brand traces its roots back to the Stitzel-Weller Distillery in Louisville, Kentucky. Stitzel-Weller was the amalgamation of the A. Ph. Stitzel and W. L. Weller & Sons distilleries by Julius "Pappy" Van Winkle Sr. - yes, that one. The distillery opened on Derby Day - May 5, 1935. The mash bill is 68% corn, 20% wheat, and 12% malted barley. It has been aged at least 3 years and is bottled at 80-proof. There is plenty of corn and caramel sweetness married with spice and oak. This is a nice mixer and a great one to have on hand for those looking to try their first sip of bourbon on race day. The label on this bourbon, too, harkens back to its heyday in the 1930s.
Makers Mark 46
This one may have you scratching your head a bit and wondering about the Derby connection. Offered in mid-April, the Maker's 46 Mile is one of the highlights of the Spring racing season at the Keeneland Racetrack in Lexington, Kentucky. Spectators will often get one of the final looks at horses vying for a spot in the starting gate for the "fastest two minutes in racing" during the first weekend in May at Churchill Downs. Bottled at 94 proof, this bourbon has red tones in its deep amber color in the glass. While there are traditional bourbon notes of vanilla and oak, you'll also find cherries and other dark fruits in a rich, desert-like expression.