What are People Really Drinking at the Derby?

May 03, 2018

By Miles Liebtag, May 03, 2018

Kentucky is a beautiful place. Driving down Interstate 71 from Cincinnati to Louisville, one climbs briefly out of the bowl of the Ohio River Valley and continues through the long, rolling hills into the Outer Bluegrass, the region which encompasses both Lexington and Louisville, Kentucky’s largest city. Louisville’s topography doesn’t feature as much of the verdant pastureland for which the Inner Bluegrass region is famed, but the city itself is rich with history, and has a fantastic food scene and burgeoning beer culture. Not to mention the Kentucky Derby.

The 2018 Kentucky Derby takes place on the first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs, a racetrack in southern Louisville, just as it has since its inaugural run in 1875. Sometimes billed as “the longest running sporting event in the United States,” the thoroughbred horse race is as synonymous with Kentucky as bourbon and bluegrass. The traditions associated with the Derby are many: Seersucker suits, big hats, glitzy galas and booze. Lots of booze. While the Mint Julep has long associations with Kentucky generally and the Derby specifically, today’s Derby and affiliated celebrations more and more reflect the diverse and changing habits of American drinkers.

Bourbon reigns in Kentucky. Woodford Reserve is the official sponsor of the 2018 Derby, and the Derby website helpfully offers up a bevy of cocktail recipes to complement your Derby experience. The race’s associations with high society and old money make the traditional tipples skew toward the “refined,” but beer is increasingly present in the grandstands. As this year’s Derby happens to fall on May 5, it’s perhaps appropriate that Corona Extra is the “official imported beer” of the race.

People mule in as much beer as they can to the infield.”

But what about Louisville’s hometown beers? Aside from a nut brown ale from Goodwood Brewing aged in Woodford Reserve Rye barrels, don’t expect to see many beers from Louisville breweries for sale at Churchill Downs—the lucrative sponsorship deals that usually put beers for sale at concessions are beyond the reach of most craft brewers.

"Inside, at the track itself, there are marketing deals that kind of preclude a lot of us smaller brands from getting in,” said Sam Cruz of Against the Grain Brewery, one of Louisville’s first and most influential craft breweries. "It doesn’t bother me one bit that we’re not there officially; people mule in as much beer as they can to the infield,” he laughed, “so I’d be surprised if we weren’t there one way or another.”

As at many racing events, the infield area at Churchill Downs is general admission, and has the reputation of being where the real party happens—though outside alcohol is officially prohibited, the infield is thick with smuggled-in beer and liquor. "Out there in the infield, it’s a big tailgate party and then some,” Cruz said. "It’s like Kentucky culture plus Mardi Gras. I think Hunter Thompson said it’s the most decadent debauchery he’s ever seen. There’s no better way to describe it—decadent depravity.”

The bathetic balance of the Kentucky Derby experience, where high society rubs up against the just plain high, is not limited to Derby Day, but forms the basis for a weeks-long citywide bacchanal. Festivities kick off two weeks prior to the race with Thunder Over Louisville, a spectacle of fireworks and airshow theatrics. The whole city thrums.

"It’s a build up that’s kinda hard to explain,” said Cruz. “It’s like spring break for two weeks. There’s a build up for Derby, then the big party, then about a half week of recovering.” I asked Cruz what he likes to drink during Derby festivities. “At the track, because options are limited, if I’m in the mood for beer I’m gonna seek out the most appropriate drink for the weather. If it’s cold and rainy I’m gonna find whatever’s dark and heavy. But more than likely I’m drinking bourbon. If it’s warm out in the infield, you’ll see me drinking a PBR. It’s just one of those things where pickings are slim. I can do High Life all day as well.”    

It’s become somewhat of a tradition for Kentucky-based breweries (and others) to brew a special batch or one-off beer to celebrate the Derby. While Against the Grain had a lot of production and collaboration commitments that prevented brewing a specific Derby beer this year, Cruz said they do attempt to have some special selections at the taproom for the influx of bourbon-crazed visitors. “We’ll break out some extra bourbon barrel-aged beers for Derby week," he said. "Better to have a wider array of offerings that week. In the past we’ve done a collaborative beer with Brew Dog for the TV show—a mint julep inspired beer that was essentially a scotch ale aged on mint in bourbon barrels.”

Braxton Brewing, based in the lovely Northern Kentucky burb of Covington, about two hours north of Louisville, also feels a particular affinity for the Kentucky Derby, which has manifested in a special brew called Kentucky Home. Now in its fourth year of production, the beer underwent a recipe change after the 2016 version, going from a 5% ABV bourbon barrel-aged light golden ale with mint, to a much heftier 9.5% ABV golden strong ale, also infused with mint and aged in bourbon barrels. The beer is redolent of bourbon and oak, with a subtle mint character that hints at the cocktail which inspired it.

Jake Rouse, co-founder and CEO of Braxton, said the beer, like most everything Braxton does, is the product of continual innovation. "Every year we try to dial it in more," he said. "From year to year the flavor changes but this year I think we really nailed it. For the first couple years we just used [our flagship 4.8% ABV golden cream ale] Storm straight without beefing it up; but the market reaction kinda told us we should take it bigger, stronger with more of a punch. The first year was also draught only, and we used a mint extract that we ultimately weren’t happy with, so we switched it to fresh mint. We wanted to make it as authentic as possible, so we went and got fresh-dumped Woodford Reserve bourbon barrels, added the beefed-up Storm and then, two months in, added about two pounds of fresh mint. It created this really unique flavor profile. You get the sweetness component of the mint julep and then you get the bourbon and mint together.” 

When I spoke to Rouse, he was on his way to Nashville for the 2018 Craft Brewers’ Conference, but was headed to Louisville on Thursday for pre-Derby festivities. "Braxton has all kinds of events around Louisville celebrating Kentucky Home. We couldn’t get distro at Churchill yet, but the beer will be on at other spots around the city. Really great time for everyone to be in Kentucky. I’ll be hitting some events and then heading to the Derby itself—for the first time in my life.”

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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