Bourbon and the Deacon at the Derby Bar

March 4, 2019

By Kate Richards   

There must be something in the country air, limestone soil and the bluegrass carpet of Kentucky to produce the spirit of a whiskey that is historically all-American. Congress said so in 1964 designating bourbon as a native spirit. Bourbon is as connected to the sensory experience of Keeneland and the iconic Kentucky Derby as the memory of a mother’s perfume or the scent of a cinnamon roll coming out of an oven. It is evocative and charming. Bourbon, in all of its amber richness, makes promises when imbibed and it delivers. One can drink bourbon and think horses in much the same way as Kentucky’s slogan “unbridled spirit” beckons to tourists. Both make one feel good. Bourbon and horses are woven into the state’s history.  Ironically bourbon is named for the Catholic French royals who persecuted Protestants, Huguenots, forcing them to seek asylum with the British. King William’s immigrant solution: he sent them packing to Virginia with land grants to be converted to farming export tobacco. The King loved to smoke. Sailing westward, these settlers first established a colony above the falls of the James River area of Virginia called Manakin-town. Sons and daughters of these Huguenots married into the illustrious First Families of Virginia fueling their hidden resources into branches of the Carters, Lewis’, Randolph’s and the Lees. The late Christopher Chenery (Secretariat) was related to the Carters of Ashland and Shirley farms. Some spread branches of their family tree to the Carolinas and others went west to the Kentucky province, at that time America’s frontier. In the Kentucky hills there had been simple stills fermenting corn ‘likker’, the first stage for crafting bourbon. The Scots and the Irish emigres had brought with them a more refined approach to making whiskey. An accidental boost from a Baptist minister, Elijah Craig, whose oak fermenting barrels became charred from a warehouse fire conjured the magic. Fortunately, there was heavenly intervention as the mash remained and accelerated from the wood char until a softer and slightly sweet amber was observed and tasted. The spirit of America was born. Heaven Hill Distillery of Shelbyville, Ky. produces a brand in his honor.        

Some of the original Kentucky families were branches of the Huguenot and the Scots settlers raising corn, tobacco and horses, the big three crops that wrote the history of the area. As it was in those beginnings, it continues to be when one checks the alumni roster of Virginia’s Woodberry Forest School, the Eton of the South, as to those with Kentucky addresses with bourbon and racehorse ties as in Hancock, Walden, Samuels,Taylor and Van Winkle. Churchill Downs history is also stitched into a familiar pattern as surveyors Merriweather Lewis and his partner, William Clark descended to Clark’s nephew Matthew Winn and his friends, the Churchill brothers. Bless these pedigreed ties that bind us to the magic of spirits and speed for the world’s racing fans to enjoyed. These fellas sure knew how to plan an annual party!

The bourbon boom has proved to be the healthiest of market segments showing 9% uptick in national market sales for the past four years as well as in international exports. Futures analysts predict a falling off going into 2019 partly due to craft entrants in the marketplace. One place that did not get that memo, is the BEHAVE YOURSELF bar, on the second floor of America’s theatre of big hats, hunches and horses. This party palace, named for the Kentucky Derby winner of 1921, is ring mastered by a bright-haired bubbly blonde named Jo-an. Jo-an has been working for Churchill Downs in the hospitality area for over 33 years and is on a first name basis for every trainer, owner, jockey and the occasional writer that has a chance to relax at her ‘club’.

A universal truth in bourbon land or other locations, is always to have a favorite bartender as they are the frontline, the archivists and the shrinks. If the officials are the preachers who govern this church in Louisville where the horses run for the roses, consider Jo-An as Churchill’s head deacon. One does not have to be a regular practice drinker to appreciate her wit and intellect.

“Every day is a party” said Jo-an. “But I have to train for the Oaks and Derby …sometimes the party becomes an asylum…if my guests get out of hand, I just say, ‘behave yourself’ and point to my sign.”

And while elite farriers and grooms attend some of the world’s fastest horses, Jo-an is shod in a fresh pair of New Balance non-skids with a “plan B” set close at hand. We share a mutual reverence for our Plan B lists that cover everything from horse tips, cute men and diet schedules. Favorite jockey? Kent Desormeaux even when he asks for ice water. Favorite man about the track until he departed for the left coast, was exercise rider Georgie Alvarez, who became known as the morning jockey for Triple Crown champion AMERICAN PHAROAH. Owners whose friendship rates high on her list are ten-fold. Her bright-eyed co-worker with the million-dollar smile, Angie Payton, is a regular partner at this altar of the Julep and the Oak’s specialty, the Lily.

Woodford Reserve ranks on her list as a brand, straight-up or as a mixed pour. Maker’s Mark also scores big with Behave Yourself guests according to this deacon of spirits.

Woodford’s traditional mint julep recipe, courtesy of Woodford Distilling website, can be replicated for those watching the May 3-4,2019 Derby and Oaks on NBC;

1 ½ oz. Woodford Reserve

½ oz simple syrup

3 mint leaves

Crushed ice

Place one mint leaf and simple syrup in glass or silver cup. Add crushed ice and the bourbon.

Garnish with mint and a straw for the ladies.

With every brand, there are the innovations; the ever-evolving craft versions, new entrants into the marketplace touting their small batch production.

“That’s booze talk as all good Kentucky bourbon is small batch!”

The deacon speakin’ again;

“I remember when the 2006 Louisville tornado took out one of E.H. Taylor’s warehouses, smashing up just about everything except for a hundred barrels that refused to die” said Jo-an. “The construction workers hauled the barrels out into the sun so that they could do the inside repairs. Some of the bourbon condensed in the sun’s heat and bingo… a deeper version with a honey finish. God made that batch!” she laughed. “That is a real craft bourbon”.

Artwork courtesy of AE SABO of “Off the Pace” cartoons.


@jonathanstettin @bbopjz Fantastic writing, thoroughly enjoyable read.

Jon Bercher (@JBercher) View testimonials