“The joy of bourbon drinking,” wrote Walker Percy, “is not the pharmacological effect of the C2H5OH on the cortex.” Rather, it’s in “the instant of the whiskey being knocked back,” which calls forth “the little explosion of Kentucky U.S.A. sunshine in the cavity of the nasopharynx.” It’s this sensation, coupled with “the hot bosky bite of Tennessee summertime,” that together result in “aesthetic considerations to which the effect of the alcohol is, if not dispensable, at least secondary.”
Indeed, it’s bourbon’s unmistakable terroir that keeps us refilling our glasses. Even beyond the taste (which I’ve personally come to enjoy more than I probably should) it’s the spirit’s strong sense of a place – apparent from the first sip or smell – that’s capable of transporting anybody, in an instant, from a too-dark dive bar on the wrong side of town all the way across time and space and into a sun-shaded slice of Heaven somewhere in Kentucky’s rolling hills. It’s here, beside an old wooden fence, that the worries of the world are subsumed by the sensation of soft grass underfoot, and of the sun’s fading warmth on the skin of bare arms. With the addition of bourbon, a dingy plastic cup reshapes itself into a polished high ball. An ill-fitting shirt and my usual pair of jeans become tailored linens. And as Percy notes, this phenomenon isn’t unique to the two of us. Across the nation, people who’ve never before glanced at a racing form tend to develop convictions about particular three-year-old thoroughbreds – so long as they’ve got bourbon in their hands.
All this explains why, on the first Saturday in May, the whole of the U.S.A. goes utterly bourbon crazy. In bars and homes far and wide,we feel an almost primal urge to congregate in front of television screens to watch the first leg of the Triple Crown. Any bar with a television will do. Better yet: any porch. It’s all a way of feeling like we’re there.
The only requirement is that you need some bourbon. To most people, this point is non-negotiable. This is a statement that Adam Johnson, Director of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, echoed over the phone “Bourbon and horses – everything on the same day?” he asked, rhetorically, in response to my question about what links the spirit to the race. “There’s simply nothing better.”
He’s right, of course. And whether you’re taking it neat, on the rocks, mixed in a julep, or perhaps even with a splash of water: there’s no wrong way to pair bourbon with the Derby. It’s simply what we should do. And so to be sure that your experience is the best it can be, we set out recently to identify ten bourbons – or, nine, if we’re being technical – that you should seek out for the race, and then have on hand for any number of celebrations, hang outs, or wind downs you’ll have in the future.
Altogether they run the gamut from affordable to high-end, and from commonly found to slightly obscure. Each one is capable of transporting a city-born Yankee into the middle of real American horse country, or of reminding an emigrated Southerner about the home they’ve left behind. Each one will make you feel at home in the Bluegrass state, even if you never make it out of your seat. You’ll hear that bugle even if you’ve never listened to a note.