Derby Days

In honor of the annual race, Bartender Laura Newman takes a look at two vital elements of Kentucky culture—Bourbon and the Derby. 


As the days grow longer, leaves start to reappear on trees, and the air grows warmer, horse racing enthusiasts and bourbon drinkers alike begin to count down the days to major US horse races. While horse racing has been practiced around the world since ancient times, in the United States it is perhaps most strongly associated with the state of Kentucky. And while Bourbon can technically be made anywhere in the US, nearly all of it – a whopping 95 percent – is produced in the Bluegrass State. Not just a happy accident, the Julep you’re enjoying on a warm spring day at a race track in Louisville is a unique result of the combination of geography and patterns of human migration in the mid-18th century. 


The geology of the contiguous United States is incredibly varied and includes a plethora of stone, minerals, and metals. Limestone – a white, porous rock that is composed mainly of the shells of tiny marine creatures that lived during the time of the dinosaurs – is present in deposits throughout the continent. These million-year-old deposits of limestone are prevalent in some states and absent in others; Kentucky happens to have an extremely high concentration of this particular stone. Limestone is one of several rocks that are known as aquifers: water is able to pass through these porous stones and, at least in the case of limestone, leach minerals from the stone itself, thereby fortifying the water with calcium and magnesium. The tiny holes in limestone also act as a natural filter, pulling out impurities and other undesirable elements from the water itself. 


This mineral-rich water (also known as “hard water” – this is the stuff that can leave opaque deposits on your shower) is ideal for distillation, feeding the yeast that creates bourbon, and providing it with optimal growing conditions. This water that is unique to Kentucky results not only in a robust and successful fermentation process but a whiskey that expresses the unique terroir and geologic makeup of the state of Kentucky. The benefits of this water extend to livestock, including horses, which are said to have exceptionally strong bones and muscles due to an increased calcium intake. 

Water with a high mineral content also contributes to the fertile soil that Kentucky is distinctly known for. In addition to growing lush, verdant grass – hence that “Bluegrass State” moniker – that is excellent for raising healthy, strong horses, Kentucky’s soil is perfect for growing an abundance of crops. Corn, which must legally comprise at least 51% of bourbon’s mashbill, grows especially well; Kentucky farmers harvested 225 million bushels of it in 2015 and it’s one of the state’s major agricultural products. 

Corn Patch & Cabin Rights Act

In 1776, Virginia passed the Corn Patch and Cabin Rights Act, which promised 400 acres of land to settlers who both established a homestead and planted corn in what is now Kentucky. This, followed by the 1803 Louisiana Purchase, which doubled the size of the United States, spurred millions to migrate west, drawn by the promise of cheap land, adventure, and a lack of the urban sprawl that was by then ubiquitous on the coast. Both migrants who had experience distilling whiskey and those who were well-versed in raising thoroughbreds were struck by the verdant fields of Kentucky bluegrass and stopped their journey west to set up shop in the nation’s fifteenth state. Whiskey makers soon realized that the continental climate of Kentucky, which boasts warm summers and moderately cold winters, uniquely affected the aging process for their distillate: dramatic temperature swings, especially on higher floors of aging facilities, yielded more whiskey moving in and out of the charred oak barrels more quickly. This large temperature shift resulted in an accelerated whiskey aging process, introducing the character of the charred new oak barrels to the alcohol inside relatively quickly. By achieving in less than a decade what took distillers across the Atlantic sometimes up to 20 years, whiskey makers in Kentucky were able to put their own unique spin on what was eventually legally codified as a specific product unique to the United States – bourbon. 

High-quality bourbon and horses are a great example of the saying “What grows together goes together”. Horse breeders in Kentucky hosted races and exhibitions at which guests drank the most widely available and low-cost spirit on hand: corn whiskey made locally (sometimes on the same property). As Kentucky-bred horses became ubiquitous on the winner’s podiums of national races, more and more breeders were drawn to emulate their success by moving their husbandry programs to the Bluegrass State. Meanwhile, word spread among US distillers that some of the best whiskey in the country was coming out of Kentucky, encouraging more and more people to establish their own distillation operations there.  

Nowadays, horses and bourbon work hand in hand to fuel the Kentucky economy through tourism and horse racing events. Brands such as Bulleit Frontier Whiskey have partnered with racetracks to feature their spirits in race day cocktails, while tour operators take guests to equestrian centers in the morning followed by distilleries in the afternoon. Beyond creating jobs and bolstering the state’s economy, both bourbon manufacturing and horse breeding are vital elements of Kentucky’s unique culture.