The History of Derby Day and Bourbon: A Perfect Pair

Derby Day, also known as the Kentucky Derby, is a revered American tradition that takes place on the first Saturday of May every year. It is the most prestigious horse race in the United States, attracting spectators from all over the world, all keen to witness the display of speed, endurance, and skill.


The official drink of the Kentucky Derby is the Mint Julep, a refreshing cocktail made with bourbon, sugar, and fresh mint. The history of Derby Day and bourbon go hand in hand, with the iconic southern spirit becoming a staple ingredient of the celebration. In this blog post, we will explore the history of Derby Day and examine why bourbon is such a popular component of the festivities.


The History of Derby Day


The first Kentucky Derby occurred on May 17, 1875, at Churchill Downs racecourse in Louisville, Kentucky. Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr., the grandson of William Clark of the Lewis and Clark expedition, founded it. Clark was inspired by races he had seen in Europe and aspired to bring a prestigious race to America.


The first Kentucky Derby race was a grand success, with over 10,000 attendees watching Aristides win the race. Since then, the Kentucky Derby has become one of the most sought-after events in America and is fondly referred to as the “Run for the Roses” because of the wreath of roses presented to the winning horse.


The event has become a symbol of southern culture, featuring extravagant hats, mint juleps, and live performances by famous musicians. The Derby has also inspired several other notable activities, such as the traditional singing of “My Old Kentucky Home,” the display of elegant antebellum dresses, and the running of the Kentucky Oaks, a race for fillies that takes place the day before the Kentucky Derby.


The Popularity of Bourbon


Bourbon whiskey has become synonymous with the state of Kentucky, and the spirit’s popularity has only increased in recent years. Bourbon is a type of whiskey distilled from a fermented mash of grains, mainly corn, barley, and rye. The spirit is known for its sweet and smoky flavor, with hints of vanilla, oak, and caramel.


The roots of bourbon can be traced back to the late 18th century when American settlers began producing whiskey from the abundance of corn available in the region. Bourbon quickly caught on, and by the early 19th century, it had become a popular spirit throughout the southern states.


Several factors contribute to the popularity of bourbon. Firstly, bourbon is an iconic representation of American culture and history, with many people identifying it as a distinctly American spirit. Secondly, bourbon has been associated with luxury and sophistication, thanks to its smooth, complex flavor and the fact that it is often aged for several years. Finally, bourbon has experienced a boom in popularity in recent years as consumers become more interested in the authenticity of a product and the unique story behind it.


The Marriage of Derby Day and Bourbon


The connection between Derby Day and bourbon is strong and undeniable, with the Mint Julep becoming an iconic event beverage. The exact origins of the Mint Julep are somewhat murky, with historians speculating that the cocktail may have been developed in the early 1800s. The early versions of this classic cocktail used brandy or rum, but by the 1850s, bourbon whiskey had become the primary ingredient.


Mint Julep

One theory suggests that the Mint Julep became synonymous with Derby Day in the early 20th century when Churchill Downs began serving the cocktail to its guests. The cocktail quickly caught on, becoming the official drink of the Kentucky Derby in 1938.


Bourbon is also an essential part of the overall experience of Derby Day, with many guests choosing to sip on the spirit straight or with other mixers while enjoying the races. Bourbon distilleries in Kentucky frequently host events, tastings, and tours during Derby Week, capitalizing on the influx of visitors who flock to the area to experience the festivities.




Derby Day and bourbon are two iconic symbols of Southern culture that have become forever intertwined. The history of the Kentucky Derby is a testament to the legacy of American horse racing, while bourbon whiskey remains a celebrated symbol of Southern pride and heritage.



The Mint Julep has become an inseparable part of Derby Day, paying tribute to the rich bourbon traditions of Kentucky. Bourbon distilleries have capitalized on this rich legacy, offering events, tours, and tastings celebrating the spirit’s deep roots in American history.


One of our favorite bourbons for our Mint Juleps is our Century Grand Single Barrel Selection of Knob Creek Bourbon.


As we raise our glasses of Mint Julep, we can’t help but appreciate the rich history and vibrant culture that has made Derby Day and bourbon such an enduring part of American life.


Grey Hen Rx, our whiskey-focused cocktail bar, offers over 500 whiskies worldwide and a robust bourbon selection. Make your upcoming reservation to enjoy a dram and ask for our retail bottle list.

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