Contrary to popular belief, bourbon doesn’t have to be made in Kentucky (just in the United States—and that’s by law). But when it comes to celebrating the Kentucky Derby, you’ve got to break out booze from the Bluegrass State. And since elaborate hats and seersucker suits are de rigeur, you’ve got to spend a bit of coin to get something nice. Here are six high-end Kentucky whiskies you’ll love neat or in a Mint Julep.
MAKER’S MARK CASK STRENGTH BOURBON
$40 for 375 mL, makersmark.com
New products from the beloved Maker’s Mark distillery are exceedingly rare, so bourbon fans went nuts when this powerful whiskey was released last fall. Like its little brother, the 100-proof-plus monster uses wheat in addition to corn, making it wonderfully sweet. You’ll taste toffee, butterscotch and fruity citrus, along with nice spice.
OLD FORESTER BIRTHDAY BOURBON
If you’re lucky enough to attend the Derby at Churchill Downs, your Julep will be made with Old Forester—it’s the race’s official drink. Capture a bit of authenticity with Old Forester, but upgrade it by picking up the brand’s Birthday Bourbon, a once-a-year release of 12-year-old vintage-dated whiskey in honor of founder George Garvin Brown’s birthday. The 2014 edition is 97-proof and offers vanilla, maple and orange notes.
JIM BEAM SIGNATURE CRAFT WHOLE ROLLED OAT BOURBON
$50 FOR 375 ML, jimbeam.com
Jim Beam’s Signature Craft collection is a series of experimental bourbons, and this version is perhaps the most unusual to date. It’s made with traditional corn and malted barley but replaces the “flavor” grain (usually rye or wheat) with whole rolled oats. The 11-year-old whiskey is mellow and toasty, with a unique almost sour note. (That sounds weird, but it’s quite tasty in the glass.)
BLANTON’S SINGLE BARREL BOURBON
Single-barrel bourbons may be common today, but when Blanton’s came out in 1984, it was the very first one on the market. Only the best barrels from a single warehouse at the Buffalo Trace Distillery are chosen for this special bottling. The racehorse-shaped stopper is perfectly appropriate for a Derby party, and the whiskey’s strong spice notes make absolutely fabulous in a Julep.
JEFFERSON’S OCEAN AGED AT SEA BOURBON
Jefferson’s doesn’t distill its own whiskey, but it does source barrels of good stuff from across Kentucky to create delicious bottlings. For this one, it loads casks on a ship that carries them around the world, stopping on five continents and crossing the Equator four times. All that sloshing around and changing temperature accelerates the aging process, yielding a whiskey redolent of dried fruits and oak, with just a hint of salt spray on the finish.
Woodford Reserve Kentucky Derby Commemorative Bourbon
As the official bourbon of the Kentucky Derby, Woodford Reserve is releasing a special edition bottle for the 141st running of the historic event. While you enjoy the smooth mix of citrus, cinnamon and cocoa associated with their product, you can also take solace knowing you’re also honoring the rich legacy that includes California Chrome, Secretariat and War Admiral.