The Story of Horse Racing and Bourbon

Pop Culture
Bourbon, including Woodford Reserve, and horse racing have a long history together. (Eclipse Sportswire)

For years, I’ve unofficially tracked bourbon sales in Kentucky liquor stores. Anecdotally, store managers and owners have told me their top three volume brands were Woodford Reserve, Maker’s Mark, and Buffalo Trace. Jim Beam, Evan Williams, Henry McKenna, Four Roses, Bulleit, and few others have cracked the top five from time to time, but the one and two position have been a steady stream of Maker’s and Woodford.

This state loves Woodford, and I credit their longtime Kentucky Derby partnership for their marketing grasp. Nothing says Kentucky like being the official bourbon of the Kentucky Derby. Well, it just got better for Woodford.

Last year, Churchill Downs added the bourbon to the Kentucky Derby title– Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve. This gives Woodford the edge in Kentucky marketing.

The Woodford-Derby partnership is both historically significant and marketing genius for both entities. Churchill Downs and Brown-Forman (Woodford producers) announced a five year agreement in which Woodford is the presenting sponsor of the Kentucky Derby. Thus, the addition in the title.

Beginning with its 144th running on May 5, 2018, at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky., the $2 million classic race and one of America’s premier sports and entertainment events will be known as the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve. America’s oldest continuously held sports event with a history that dates to 1875, the Kentucky Derby will be nationally televised by NBC Sports, according to a press release.

Terms of the presenting sponsor agreement between Churchill Downs and Brown-Forman were not released.

A Woodford Reserve bar at the Kentucky Derby
A Woodford Reserve bar at the Kentucky Derby. (Eclipse Sportswire)

But it’s likely the largest sponsorship in bourbon history and should grow Woodford Reserve.

As the bourbon person for the Kentucky Derby Museum, I’ve studied the long history between the Derby and bourbon. Below is an excerpt from “Bourbon” regarding this symbiotic relationship.

Kentucky Bourbon Chase

After Prohibition, horse racing, baseball, and boxing were the United States’ top sports. And since horse racing’s crown jewel—the Kentucky Derby—was in the Kentucky bourbon distillers’ backyard, each major brand found itself in a race to own the publicity rights to the Kentucky Derby. From the end of Prohibition to 1942, dozens of bourbon advertisements filled the pages Kentucky Derby programs, and the leaders of the pack were Brown-Forman’s Old Forester, Paul Jones, and National Distillers. Like the horses in the race, each ad was strong, making a case for their bourbon to be the beloved spirit of the Kentucky Derby patron. Brown-Forman held true to the fact that Old Forester is a one-distillery bourbon, National plugged the mixability of its Old Grand-Dad and Old Taylor, and Paul Jones’ Four Roses spoke of virtue in its blends.

May 4, 1935, Old Forester Bottled-in-Bond: “For 65 years acknowledged by connoisseurs to be the finest of Kentucky whiskies. Old Forester, with its famous full-bodied flavor, mellow richness and glowing satisfaction, is produced by us only, and from our own famous formula, treasured since 1870. The famous Old Forester plain label appears only on whisky made by ourselves, in our own distillery, by our own methods. A limited quantity is now available.”

1938, National Distillers: “And for a julep at its supreme best, ask to have it made with Old Taylor or Old Grand-Dad—two bottled-in-bond bourbons in which 50 Derby winners have been toasted—two magnificent whiskies that have spread Kentucky’s fame for hospitality and genial living the wide world round.”

1942, Four Roses, a Blend of Straight Whiskies: “Four Roses, you see, is more than a single straight whiskey—it’s a superb combination of several selected whiskies. Even the youngest of these whiskies is 4 years old! All of them are old enough to be bottled in bond, and would be, if we thought they were be as good, sold separately that way. But instead, we prefer to bring these distinguished whiskies together—to unite all their virtues in one whiskey that is finer still. Four Roses is ALL whiskey—purposely reduced to 90 proof to make it lighter and milder.”

Brown-Forman won the race and to this day is the premier bourbon sponsor of Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby. They won for more reasons than just spending more money: the Brown family had a passion for the race. In 1940, they created a special bottling for the 66th Kentucky Derby. It was only available to those in attendance and is this author’s great white whale in bourbon collecting.

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