Visiting Two Official Kentucky Derby Drink Producers

Events / Travel

The new Woodford Reserve visitor center recently opened, just in time for the Kentucky Derby.

Kentucky Derby day is fast approaching and everyone is talking about the horses but my area of expertise is different, so let’s complete the tales of my recent trip to Lexington.

Before the races at Keeneland one day, while Ms. Wright was at an owners’ seminar, I pointed my vehicle toward two of the three producers that have been chosen as official beverages for the Kentucky Derby, Woodford Reserve and Equus Run Vineyards. (The one not covered here is Early Times and their Mint Julep Ready-To-Serve Cocktail). Woodford Reserve helped blaze the trail for the current craft Bourbon craze and continues to be a leader. People flock here, as evidenced by my visit when a crowd of about 40 milled about at 11 a.m. ET on a Friday.

The new visitor center for Woodford Reserve was unveiled a few weeks ago and it is a lovely facility. My interior pictures left much to be desired so for a better look, check out their website. If you plan to tour, go early as they fill up quickly. All 16 labels of the official bourbon of the Kentucky Derby are on display here but they are exceptionally hard to photograph, perhaps to encourage a visit. I really like the current commemorative label, especially the detail of the horses combined with the blur of spectators. It is a nice flip by the artist, David O. Schuster from Louisville, Ky., of where the action appears to be.

You should know that the liquid inside of the Derby bottling is the Distillerʼs Select, Woodford Reserveʼs calling card. So, the question becomes what price you pay for the artist label. At the distillery, the 750ml bottle sells for $34.99 and the Derby bottle, in a one-liter size, for $49.99. By volume, thatʼs about a 10 percent upcharge, a reasonable amount for a souvenir of the 140th Kentucky Derby. However, the suggested price nationally is only $43.99, which results in a discount compared with the 750ml price at the distillery.

Woodfordʼs hallmark style for me is elegance. It is bourbon though, so you should expect the vanilla, smoky oak and caramel components. In their Distillerʼs Select, fruit aromas intermingle as well, apricot on the nose and then some citrus on the palate and finish. What I mean by elegance is that it offers more subtlety and nuance than many others I have tried. It is more than charred oak and a burn on the finish. Perhaps that is due to the relatively high percentage of rye, (18 percent, the rest is 72 percent corn and 10 percent malted barley). They also employ copper pot stills like those used in the making of scotch, cognac and some armagnac, and I prefer those spirits generally over bourbon, so maybe thatʼs part of it.

My next stop took me to Equus Run Vineyards, a perfect choice for official Kentucky Derby wine. Their name, location, pictures on the website and artwork all involve horses.

This isnʼt just another winery started by someone who made their money in corporate America, though Cynthia Bohn worked for IBM for 30 years. That tired, old story has the moneyed owner hiring big name consultants and the only thing they lift around the winery is a glass. At Equus, Bohn is the winemaker and vineyard manager among a thousand other things required of a hands-on owner.

The winery has its own vineyards (hence the name), producing all of their white grapes, including Chardonnay, and some of the red they need as well. The rest come from California, New York, and Indiana, hence the designation of “American wine” on the labels. 

The winery is celebrating its 10th year offering official commemorative wines for the Kentucky Derby. Four wines are available for this 140th running: Chardonnay, Blush, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. The first three are available for tasting ($5 charge for six selections, which includes a wide array of other wines) if you visit.

The Chardonnay was nice and fresh, a bit on the sweet side, although really it was more that it wasnʼt bone dry than actually sugary. Some spiciness livened the palate and the stainless steel fermentation kept the wine light on its feet without losing any of its Chardonnay character. It would be a happy addition a Derby party, especially as a food wine - think seafood - shrimp and trout spring to mind.

The Blush is made from an unusual mix of Vidal Blanc, Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel. I was expecting White Zin more than rosé due to the name but was pleasantly surprised. Certainly the wine is fruity, I could really taste the Riesling, but it stayed dry on the finish. There were even hints of the orange tones I expect from some of my favorite pink wines from Southern France. The finish is long and just juicy enough to stand up to some spicy food, specifically Asian. Visions of beef negimaki and dragon rolls danced in my head for quite a while.

Merlot is far from my favorite grape. Although there are some really good wines made with a Merlot base, too many wineries turn it into a dull, flabby version of its real self. Fortunately for my palate, Equus makes one true to its roots. The aroma is just a little dirty, not in a flawed way, just not all polished. This is the real version of the child not the one we see in school pictures, and it is much more appealing. The edge of the wine is a nice purple color, the core is dark. The palate is juicy and lush, with notes of plum, and has a velvety feel until the finish when some tannin appears. These are not tough chewy tannins, these are mostly on the tongue. My host for the tasting, Charlie, said it was, “not like biting into a wool sweater.” This just means it wants food and that it will be fairly versatile at the table. I’m thinking roasted chicken with some mushrooms, maybe some spaghetti and meatballs, especially if there are some olives in the sauce.

At the winery prices:
 Chardonnay $17.49, Blush $15.49 and Merlot $25.49 - discounts are available for wine club members.

The fancy bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon in the picture was not available for tasting as they only made 140 bottles. They are $80 each and members apparently reserve the same bottle number from year to year. The first bottle goes to Churchill Downs and the last to the owner of Equus. The rest are available for sale, but I cannot speak to the quality.

When asked about other Kentucky wineries, some other guests mentioned to me that this was the best winery in the area and they left with a few cases, so that seems believable. If you’re in the area, stop in and ask for Charlie; you’ll have fun and maybe find a new favorite or two.

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