The Kentucky Derby – the oldest sports event in the United States, dating back to 1875 – kicks off tomorrow.
Each year, thousands of people gather to watch the race, drink whiskey, and don brightly colored, fancy hats. In 2012, at a record-breaking Derby, 165,307 fans were in attendance and $133.1 million was bet on the racing horses. After the Derby, two more races follow: the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes. Together with the Kentucky Derby, all three races are known as the Triple Crown. The last horse to win the Triple Crown was American Pharaoh in 2015.
The bourbon industry and Kentucky’s horse industry have been linked for centuries. Through the 1800s, distillers were known for stables of thoroughbred horses, for involvement in harness racing, and investing in racetracks. James E. Pepper was an extremely well known distiller and horse breeder and Hamilton C. Applegate, Treasurer at Churchill Downs, owned the whiskey brand Old Rosebud. The bourbon and horse industries were tied very closely together until the 1960s, when a general decline in bourbon sales forced distilleries to discontinue carrying small, regional brands.
Today, Maker’s Mark releases bottles in support of Keenland Racetrack and many beverage alcohol companies, including Brown Forman, sponsor at least one horse race. Hundreds of bourbon distilleries show up at the Kentucky Derby to offer samples and showcase new products.
The traditional drink for this event is the Mint Julep – consisting of bourbon, water, ice, sugar, and fresh mint. Served in a highball glass, this cocktail has been served at the Derby for over a century. Each year, almost 120,000 Mint Juleps are ordered during the Kentucky Derby weekend at the Churchill Downs Racetrack. The majority of the Mint Juleps will be made with Old Forrester, the longest-running straight bourbon whiskey in Kentucky. Other cocktails will certainly make an appearance, including the Grey Goose Oaks Lily, Jalisco Julep, and Bacardi Red Rum Punch.
If you’re looking to spend big bucks, the race’s official bourbon, Woodford Reserve, comes in a $1,000 Mint Julep Cup to benefit the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund. The Julep honors the traditional southern dessert Pecan Pie with a splash of toasted pecan orgeat syrup and caramelized pecan crumbles.
To be sure, drinkers in Kentucky attending the race and partiers around the United States will be stocking up on bourbon in preparation for Saturday. Liquor inventory needs to be prepped, displays correctly set up, and promotions clearly organized. Real-time data from the marketplace can verify for both distributors and suppliers that merchandise is arranged as expected. The majority of drinks used to celebrate the Derby will necessitate a certain liquor, probably bourbon, and consumers will be on the lookout.