How One Bourbon Company Is Honoring the First Woman to Ever Race in the Kentucky Derby
Any other year, this story would be very different. For one thing, you would have read it back in May, and for another, you wouldn’t experience it virtually, but in person like you might have many times before. For the last 21 years, Woodford Reserve has been the official bourbon of the Kentucky Derby, hosted the first Saturday in May. Except this year, when it will be held on the first Saturday in September. As part of this partnership, Woodford Reserve hosts its mint julep cup program, wherein you can purchase bespoke mint julep cups for $1,000 or $2,500, depending on whether you choose the gold- or silver-plated option, and all of the proceeds from that purchase go to the decided charity for that year. Any other year, you would pick up your cup on Derby day and it would already have that year’s special mint julep cocktail in it. But not this year.
This year, Woodford Reserve is going digital, sending those who ordered a mint julep cup all of the ingredients they need to make this year’s blackberry mint julep, along with the cup itself in a walnut box with turquoise silks—a garment worn by jockeys to indicate who the owner of the horse is; all horse owners have their own color of silks—to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Diane Crump’s historic ride as the first-ever female jockey to race in the Kentucky Derby.
“We’re celebrating a historic moment in Derby lore. It was 50 years ago, Derby 96, that the first woman rode in a Kentucky Derby, the first female jockey rode in any major horse racing event,” says Chris Morris, Woodford Reserve’s master distiller (pictured left). “She put up with a lot, as you can imagine as we talk about all the issues of today, she put up with a lot of grief, but she did it. And those are the silks she wore that are engraved on the cups. Now, the silks that line the box are the colors of the silks she wore.”
These turquoise silks are what inspired this year’s mint julep recipe.
“Every year, the julep is different,” Morris explains. “I’ve tried to have a theme, something fun and make it different every year, not just your typical mint julep. So, I was looking at the silks and they’re turquoise, blue and white. And I thought, ‘What fruit has that color?’ Well guess what? No fruit is turquoise color. But if you push the boundaries, if you muddle and dilute a blackberry, it sort of gets somewhat, wink wink, that color. And the reason I chose blackberry is because blackberry is the official fruit of Kentucky, that’s our state fruit.” In fact, the julep Morris demoed for me utilized blackberries grown right on premise.
The mint julep is a classic cocktail, as well as the official drink of the Derby since 1938, but Woodford Reserve puts their spin on it by using mint bitters, which they make in-house in place of utilizing fresh mint, and blackberry jam—both of which will be sent to anyone who buys a mint julep cup this year, so they can make the cocktail at home.
Morris notes that Woodford Reserve put the cups up for sale two weeks earlier than they normally would due to COVID, and that, as of mid-August, half the cups were already sold. This year’s mint julep cup sales will benefit the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund, a charity chosen by Crump.
“We were very, very happy to be able to do that,” Morris says.
And while Woodford Reserve became endorsed by Churchill Downs in 1999, the mint julep cup program kicked off 15 years ago after Morris read about the extravagant cocktails that bars in New York were selling.
“One bar had a martini with diamond earrings hanging off the edge of the glass, and it was a $10,000 martini. And another had a necklace draped over the top… and they were for public relations,” Morris says. “They got lots of buzz. Everybody said, ‘Oh, you go to here and you get a $20,000 drink.’…I saw that in press clippings. I thought, ‘Hmm. That’s a fun idea.’ But there was never a rationale. Why was that martini having earrings on it at that restaurant? It was a gimmick. So, we have a real foundation, we’re the official bourbon of the Kentucky Derby and the mint julep was served at Churchill Downs and we’re making mint juleps, we’ve been making mint juleps. Why don’t we make a $10,000 mint julep, a $1,000 mint julep? And we have the perfect vehicle, the julep cup, put diamonds on it, put… I was just talking out loud. And our brand team said, ‘Yeah, let’s do it. That’s a good idea.’ And so, others chimed in and gave some other good ideas like, ‘Let’s make the julep different every year. Let’s have some special ingredients.’
“But that’s where it netted out,” Morris continues. “It was a good idea to raise a profile of the mint julep to get some good news. And to donate money to charity. It was always, ‘Let’s give the money to charity.’ And we learned our lesson. It was not our lead message. So that first year, we had 55 cups. Don’t ask why we had 55 cups—that’s how many we had. And they were all gold and so we got on…we were lampooned on Saturday Night Live’s newscast; we were on The Ellen [DeGeneres] Show. We were all over the media so it worked, but we were getting lambasted, we and Churchill Downs—‘What’s next? $200 hotdogs? Ha ha ha.’ Because we hadn’t said, ‘Oh, by the way, the money goes to charity.’”
“It made us look like we were being greedy,” Morris concludes. “And so, we learned that we should talk about the charity first before we talk about the cup. But that was the inspiration, it was just a little trend at the time, and we took it to the next level and made it benefit some good causes.”
The mint julep cups sold in the program are handcrafted by a jeweler and are gold- or silver-plated, but Morris says they have created more extravagant cups that have gems, such as emeralds, rubies and even diamonds on them to be auctioned off. He casually mentioned that one such cup sold for over $22,000.
“In years past, we would have a certain number of cups that were really, as I said, with the diamonds and the emeralds and stuff. We put some extra bling on them, and they were live-auction cups, so people would go online and bid them up,” Morris says. “And this one year, the great Barbaro had just passed away. He had won the Kentucky Derby and died a year later from laminitis—it’s a disease that horses get—and it was like your favorite rock star passing away. So many people were just sad and bummed out. And so, we had a cup with Barbaro’s name on it and diamonds and things. And we put it up for bid, and we’ll sell it for whatever it goes for. And a woman from New York paid $22,222.22 for that cup and drink. And she never came to the Derby. She said, ‘I’m not coming. My money’s a pure donation,’ which it was,” to the Thoroughbred Charities of America, an organization that conducts research on laminitis. “She wanted us to present the cup to Barbaro’s owner, which we did on Derby day. So that, to the best of my knowledge, is the most expensive whiskey drink, bourbon drink—it’s definitely the most expensive Woodford Reserve drink sold in the history of the world. And somebody paid $22,000 for a single drink…And never got to drink it.”
The Derby is steeped in tradition, with the mint julep cup program being a staple, but some Derby traditions won’t continue this year.
“Even though the track will be open with a limited number of people, there will be no open drinks, no open hawking going on,” Morris says. “So it will be interesting to see if this changes things in the future, but a lot of traditions are on hold for this year and this new tradition which is now that, again, in its 15th year, the $1,000 mint julep…this thing about over 10 percent of the derbies have had $1,000 dollar mint julep. So, we’ve become a tradition. And we’re still going in with that, that’s the good thing.”
Although Woodford Reserve has pivoted to meet the moment digitally, Morris hopes this won’t become a permanent fixture.
“[Going to the Kentucky Derby is] one of those indescribable experiences, and that’s why it’s on so many people’s bucket list,” Morris says. “You can’t match that virtually. I mean, virtually can go so far, which is great. But it’s just so hard to imagine the energy and the buzz and the thrill you get from being at the track and everybody’s dressed up and all that kind of good stuff. We need to get it back because it’s just one of those experiences that the world needs to have.”
The Derby is especially meaningful for a company with so much history behind it. Woodford Reserve is owned by Brown-Forman, which began in 1870 and now houses brands like Chambord and Jack Daniel’s. The 50th anniversary of Crump’s ride is meaningful to the Brown family because it was their horse that Crump made history riding in 1970.
“The Brown family have been at the forefront of historic preservation here in Kentucky of environmental issues,” Morris says. “Our corporation today is routinely one of the top three green beverage companies in the United States, of all beverage companies, not just spirits, but all beverage companies. We are so concerned about the environment and social issues and, again, like Mr. Brown, the owner of the horse, was the first patron of Muhammad Ali. He was his sponsor when he was a young man. And so, his family, the Brown family, helped build the Muhammad Ali Center in downtown Louisville. And so, again, very, very much in the forefront of social issues, environmental issues and the like. So, I think it was important. He could have chosen any jockey and he chose her…It was like Jackie Robinson breaking into the big leagues. It wasn’t easy for him; it wasn’t easy for her, but she persevered.”
The Kentucky Derby airs on September 5. You can purchase your own Woodford Reserve mint julep cup here.