There are only three basic decisions to make on Kentucky Derby Day: what horse to bet on, what hat to wear, and what new whiskey to try.
And in my experience, if you choose right on the third category, the other two decisions won’t matter as much. (Really.)
So to prepare for the 145th Run for the Roses (in addition to looking at which horses to bet on) I reached out to Kentucky native Robert Cate—the food and beverage manager at Hotel Covington in Kentucky. The man oversees the property’s three dining and drinking places—Coppin’s, The Patio, and The Walk Up—and is beyond enthusiastic when it comes to bourbon and rye, as many Kentuckians are. (It is their birthright, after all.)
Cate so very generously curated 19 of his top picks to enjoy during Derby Day. And his list is diverse and wide in its range, including easy-to-find liquids (such as Four Roses Single Barrel, Noah’s Mill, and Rittenhouse) as well as more elusive bottles (like Colonel E.H. Taylor Seasoned Wood, Cream of Kentucky, and Savage & Cooke’s The Burning Chair). So there’s really something for everyone in this roster—not matter where you’re based. Unless you live in a dry town. And if that’s the case, neither Cate nor I can help you.
Not a big bourbon or rye drinker? Think about going for a mint julep. There’s no shame in that. But make sure to make it with quality bourbon.
“Former Four Roses master distiller Jim Rutledge struck gold with the revitalization of this brand,” Cate says. “Vanilla and caramel candy with subtle spicy oak notes and a long smooth finish. If you can find a bottle (or a pour) buy it.”
“This is my number one bourbon of all time. Bottled in Bond like all E.H. Taylor products, this is like subtle fireworks on tongue and caramel gold on the finish.”
“You can’t talk about bourbon with someone in Covington, Kentucky without talking about George Remus, King of the Bootleggers,” Cate says. “Caramel and vanilla notes make this bourbon sing and would make the king himself very proud.”
“This is my go-to. Mix it with cola, make an old fashioned, whiskey sour, drink it neat, or on the rocks. This is an all-around star.”
“Wow. Dave Phinney is known for his wines—most famously The Prisoner. But this bourbon raises eyebrows in a good way. It is finished in The Prisoner wine barrels, giving a little interest with its baked dark fruits finish.”
“This brand, with ties to Pappy and Weller, has a unique smoke characteristic that builds through the palate and onto the finish. This bourbon really opens up on the rocks.”
“One of my favorites of all time. Every time I drink this, I can’t help but think about chocolate. The perfect after dinner sipper, if you will.”
“I fell in love with Russell’s after tasting the 2002 batch. The 10 Year pales in comparison, but is a mighty fine whiskey to sip on the back deck.”
“One of my dark horses. A barrel strength bourbon with a very unique nutty finish.”
“At 128.8 proof I was expecting an immediate burn, but there wasn’t any,” Cate says. “Packed with flavor, spice forward, but with honey and dried cherry on the finish. This is a flavor bomb. Do not hesitate with this, it’s worth every penny.”
“An easy sipper with beautiful oak notes and a cherry finish.”
“A new distillery in Newport, Kentucky,” Cate says. “Amazing branding and even better juice. It’s very well balanced and full of flavor. Try the single barrel picks too!”
“This is a hidden gem. Just barely meeting rye standards at 51%, this is like a spiced cherry cola. Something to really cool you down on a hot day.”
“This is human catnip if I’ve ever tasted it. Proofy to start, smooth as butter on the finish, and packed with flavor.”
“This should be staple for everyone. Perfect for manhattans, Sazeracs, neat, or on the rocks. Rittenhouse is a true crowd pleaser”
“This is a southerner’s dream bourbon,” Cate says. “Honey, peaches, and brown sugar round out the rye spice. A super long finish makes this bourbon a true winner in my books.”
“This one is special to me. [While being neither a bourbon nor a rye] this was one of my first whiskeys. Lots of caramel and super smooth. The price tag isn’t bad either.”
“A new distillery in Danville with a unique flavor profile,” Cate says. “This is a very young bonded bourbon, but it yields an interesting fresh dough flavor. Gives a whole new meaning to ‘chewing’ your bourbon.”
“An amazing straightforward bourbon,” Cate says. “Caramel and vanilla bring out sweet fruit and dark cherry on the finish—perfect for an old fashioned. I like to enjoy this with two cubes.”