Kentucky typically has two claims to fame that resonate with non-Kentuckians: thoroughbreds and brown water (aka: bourbon). While the horses take front and center on the great Kentucky stage the first Saturday every May, it’s the bourbon that serves as not just the biggest export for the Commonwealth, but also the biggest tourist attraction the other 364 days of the year.
As the bourbon boom seems to match, and surpass, its height in popularity year after year, its newfound successes have hardly begun to be satiated. Yet, it wasn’t all that long ago that the industry was clinging to its last dying, bourbon breath. Smaller distilleries were closing as sales were on the decline all around, and bourbon’s “image” was thought to be dead.
It was never a matter of “if” as much as it was a matter of “which” distillery we would seek out to include in our Road Trip Kentucky project. After speaking with the wonderful folks at Woodford Reserve and learning of their close ties with “the most exciting two minutes in sports,” we knew this was a story that needed to be told.
As Woodford Reserve Master Distiller Chris Morris would tell it, the Kentucky Derby was experiencing a lull in interest, not entirely dissimilar than the one the bourbon industry was struggling with after decades of decline. “They were looking for a way to get millennials, although they weren’t called that then, but the younger, 20-somethings interested in the Derby,” he explained. “That’s when they, being Churchill Downs, asked us to be the official bourbon of the Derby.”
Chris went on to explain that in Woodford’s infancy, they were one of a few distilleries that were “cool, hip, doing something different and special that nobody else was doing.” This created the ideal setting for a marriage that would prove to be mutually fruitful, almost immediately.
What was Woodford Reserve doing that was so unique to the bourbon world? Well, for starters, they pioneered the process of toasting, then charring their barrels before filling them. They are also the only distillery to triple distill their bourbon using the iconic copper stills that are undoubtedly a visceral highlight for tour-goers. Additionally, they employ an old 18th century “heat-cycled” aging process that is unique to the industry. As Chris would tell us, “Every one of the five sources of flavor we do is common to the industry. We just do it differently.”
It was those differences, the attention to detail and the dedication to reinventing bourbon that led Churchill Downs to pursue its partnership with Woodford. Now, 18 years later, the partnership is stronger than ever. Each year, a charitable organization is chosen for the $1,000 Mint Julep Cup program, toward which the proceeds from the sales of the gold and silver cups are awarded.
Actually, if you have ever ordered a mint julep outside of Churchill Downs, you have Woodford Reserve to thank. “We really brought the mint julep back to life,” Chris explained. “If you go back to the late 1990s, you would not find a mint julep on a bar or restaurant menu anywhere else in the country, let alone the world. Once we got involved with Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby, and championed the mint julep, now you can go to bars and restaurants in London, Tokyo, Sydney, and of course across the United States, and you will see different interpretations of the mint julep on bar and restaurant menus.”
“The best mint juleps are made with the best ingredients,” Chris explained. “And we have, I think, perfected the mint julep here at Woodford Reserve.”
“Being a part of the Kentucky Derby is something that elevates Kentucky to a global stage,” said Elizabeth McCall, Master Taster at Woodford Reserve. “Horses in Kentucky and bourbon in Kentucky, they just seem to go perfectly together. One thing that ties the two together is the limestone water. It makes for great racehorses and those minerals in the water create great flavors in the bourbon.”
She went on to say that while bourbon is ultimately what caught the world’s attention, people began to realize they could come to visit the distillery, and in the same trip, tour the horse farms that raised famous equines such as American Pharoah. “Bourbon is what kicked off tourism in Kentucky,” Elizabeth said. “Now, the equine industry has really tacked onto that, so now, you can visit these famous horse farms, then see a bourbon distillery and people feel like they can have the quintessential Kentucky experience.”
“Now, we’re just trying to keep up with the growth. I’m just so proud of it,” Elizabeth concluded, as swells of tourists began to fill the visitors’ center outside of the tasting room where we spoke. “I just hope to keep growing it in this way and helping people fall in love with it the way I’m in love with it.”
To read more about Woodford Reserve, visit their website.