On Derby Day: Bourbon, of Course

One of the finest spectacles of spring is the Kentucky Derby in all its glory. Many things make it a legendary event beyond a simple horse race — the storied history, the lavish hats, the celebrities and, of course, bourbon.

The Derby and bourbon go together hand-in-hand like smoke and fire. According to Woodford Reserve, the official bourbon of the Kentucky Derby: “In Kentucky, horses are everything and bourbon is everything else. There are more barrels of bourbon in the entire state of Kentucky than people.”

The signature drink of the Derby — taking place Saturday, May 5 — is the mint julep. If you’re looking to sip on one of these, the obvious place is the renowned Round Robin Bar at the Willard Hotel. It was here that Henry Clay, who served as secretary of state, House speaker and U.S. senator from Kentucky, introduced the Southern-style mint julep to Washington in the 1800s.

Another swanky option is Next Whiskey Bar at the Watergate Hotel, where you’ll be surrounded by 2,500 illuminated whisky bottles, creating a golden glow that immediately entices your taste buds. From 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. on May 5, there will be a Kentucky Derby viewing party at the bar featuring a bottomless mint julep special, food stations, live music and contests. Admission is $50.

In Georgetown, Bourbon Steak in the Four Seasons Hotel offers a selection of 60 bourbons. This spring, the restaurant is celebrating its 10th anniversary by reviving some favorite seasonal cocktails from years past. My pick for a race-day tipple would be the Fireside Chat, a mixture of High West Campfire whiskey, English breakfast tea and walnut bitters. The walnut accent reminds me of another favorite Bluegrass State treat, Derby pie, a decadent pastry full of chocolate and walnuts, served with bourbon whipped cream.

District DistillingCo. on U Street is offering a layered shot called the Two & Two to tie into the $2-million payout awarded to the winning horse and jockey. Available on Derby Day for $5, it’s made by layering Backroom bourbon on top of District Distilling’s Embassy Row crème de menthe, garnished with a mint leaf.

Since the race is also known as “the Run for the Roses,” you may want to consider injecting some roséwine into your cocktail. Out in Reston, Virginia, Red’s Table recently introduced two whiskey and rosécocktails crafted by bar manager Justin Winfield. The Kiwi Sour is forged from Bulleit bourbon, lemon juice, egg white, Matua Valley pinot noir rosé and Angostura bitters. The Reston Rosé is made with Red’s apple pie bourbon, lemon syrup, mint, a pinch of salt, lime peel and Sables d’Azur Côtes de Provence rosé.

Luckily, D.C. is a whiskey town. You have a plethora of choices where you can down some bourbon and cheer on your favorite horse. Some other establishments with exceptional whiskey lists include Smoke & Barrel and Bourbon in Adams Morgan, Black Whiskey in Logan Circle and Boundary Stone in Bloomingdale. On Capitol Hill, you’ll find more than 200 varieties listed on the two-page “brown water” menu at Barrel.

Just remember to order well before the starting gates open, or you might miss the race; it’s called “the fastest two minutes in sports” for good reason.


1 oz. District Distilling’s Embassy Row crème de menthe

1 oz. Backroom bourbon

Pour the crème de menthe into the center of the glass; try not to get any on the sides. Place an upside-down spoon in the glass, with the tip against the inside edge, above the first layer. Pour the bourbon slowly over the back of the spoon, moving the spoon up as the level rises to create a layered affect. Garnish by floating a whole mint leaf on top.


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