The “Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports” is inarguably the marquee event of Derby Week, when 20 horses race the track of Churchill Downs for glory, cash and bragging rights as thousands of hat-besotted onlookers cheer in hopes of a return on wages. (As Rand Paul, the junior senator of Kentucky, once told me at the White House Correspondents Dinner, “Bet a lot of money; you’ll feel really good about yourself.”)
But there is much more to do in and around Louisville leading up to the big Saturday event. Last year I explored local history and culture for two days leading up to the Derby, and this past weekend I found new adventures, met new people and discovered fresh ways to enjoy Kentucky’s largest, most cultured city surrounding the big race.
Come along, then, for the free ride.
After picking up my media credentials at the famous Churchill Downs, I’m ready for some life-giving liquid blood of the South. And so over to the distillery at Angel’s Envy (500 E Main St, Louisville, Kentucky, 40202, 502/890-6300), which is one of the few in town I have yet to visit.
In a downtown building built in 1902, the good folks at Angel’s Envy have been churning out their bourbon — finished in port wine casks — since 2011, when they officially opened their doors to the public after founder Lincoln Henderson and his sons tapped the charred white oak barrels that had warehoused their spirit after the requisite years of aging.
At the beginning of the tour, team member Tommy G — whom you absolutely must request! — gives us a primer on the brand, including that co-founder Lincoln Henderson helped craft such Kentucky staples as Woodford Reserve and Gentleman Jack before “retiring” to found his own label with his son Wes and grandson Kyle.
Tommy G leads us into the innards of the massive facility, even walking us past a distilling machine where “freshly” produced moonshine sloshes back behind the company logo on its way toward the barrel house.
And in the barrel house, because I knew what a cooper was when Tommy inquires of our group — granted, it helps when you have an English girlfriend with that surname — Tommy invites me to “help” a staff member manipulate a spigot machine down into the bunghole of a port barrel. I press down on some buttons, and into the barrel flows fresh precious moonshine that, given several years to age inside the staves, should be ready for bottling and drinking sometime in 2022.
Tommy then uses my phone camera to film me hammering the “bung into the bunghole” — leading to no small amount of sophomoric “Beavis and Butthead”-esque jokes lobbed back and forth as I do so. (Amid such childish humor, I do in fact learn that the bungs are in fact not removed later but rather drilled through for tapping.)
And on to the tasting room. The port barrel-finished Envy is a thrill to the palate, and with just a drop or two of water, opens up to wondrousness. The Finished Rye, while incredibly complex, reinforces that, for whatever reason, my taste for ryes remains elusive. And then of course on to Cask Strength, which Spirit Journal in 2013 named “the best spirit in the world.” It’s rich and complex thanks to its lengthy finishing process.
Wes Henderson, co-founder of the brand and also Angel’s Envy chief innovations officer — and of founder Lincoln Henderson — tells me that his company’s bourbon is “smooth and very approachable,” as well as a good gateway whiskey for those who maybe aren’t taken with the lifeblood of the Bluegrass State.
“Bourbon is seeing unprecedented growth,” he said. “We’ve grown way faster than we ever expected to. It’s not a bad problem to have.”
Wes tells me there’s an esprit de corps among Louisville’s distilleries, and that each distiller imparts to visitors one more piece of the complicated puzzle that is the whiskey industry. (To wit, in 2013 I learned about the prime ingredients at Town Branch, and in 2016 the Evan Williams Experience imparted more about the origins of whiskey distilling in these parts.)
“You learn history from each one, and you put the pieces together, and then you learn what bourbon is all about,” Wes said of himself and his fellow whiskey-makers.
Wes tells me he’ll be enjoying mint juleps at the Derby tomorrow, an event he cheerily describes as “a big cocktail party with gambling.”
Oaks Day in Louisville means parties. And for the second year in a row, I’ve been invited to the Stitzel-Weller Affair presented by Blade and Bow. This jaunty fete is again hosted at the Bulleit Frontier Whiskey Experience (3860 Fitzgerald Rd., Louisville, Kentucky, 40216, 502/475-3325), where Blade and Bow’s Doug Kragel, master of whiskey for Diageo’s North American whiskey portfolio serves as the grand poobah for the evening’s special pour.
Mint juleps and appetizers are on offer for cocktail hour, and then we are treated to a three-course, Southern-inspired meal courtesy of Chef Ford Fry.
Doug takes the mic and guides the gathered for a sampling of the Blade and Bow 22-Year-Old, with its magnificent nose and caramel-colored portfolio. It’s heaven in a glass, and she packs a mighty wallop. The good stuff has been tapped specifically for Derby Day, and there’s a reason: Bourbon this special requires a special occasion.
After picking up Victoria from the airport, we head back downtown to the 21c Museum Hotel (700 W Main St., Louisville, Kentucky, 40202, 502/217-6300) for the one and only Esquire Derby festivus, a night-before event of hors d’oeuvres and cocktails courtesy of Rabbit Hole Distilling, including old fashioned and, of course, more mint juleps. Grammy winner Kimbra will hold court on stage this evening.
On my flight down this morning, I spied Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, so perhaps it’s not surprising that among the revelers this evening is none other than Rep. John A. Yarmuth, a Kentucky Democrat whose constituency includes Louisville itself. Mr. Yarmuth, who is attending his 54th Derby, hands me the most interesting bit of news about Congress that, as a Washington resident, I had yet to discover:
There is, in fact, a Congressional Bourbon Caucus.
“We have about 40 members in the House. It has many members from outside of Kentucky.
“It’s bipartisan. Rand Paul is in the caucus,” Mr. Yarmuth says of the junior member of Kentucky’s upper chamber.
“It’s a proper bipartisan atmosphere that hopefully we can mutate into a lot of the other” areas of governance, Mr. Yarmuth says, smiling as he sips on an old fashioned.
“This is the celebration of one of the great traditions of Kentucky — more than anything else, the wonderful Kentucky hospitality,” he says. “I love it.”
If Mr. Yarmuth is surprising, his fellow Louisvillian, Steve Wilson, is downright eccentric. Mr. Wilson founded the 21c with his wife, Laura Lee Brown, over 10 years ago, and they have spread their unique combination of museum and hotel to other cities around the country — including, I recall, Oklahoma City, where I visited last fall.
“21c is known for its contemporary art and cutting-edge look on life,” Mr. Wilson tells me in a relatively quiet alcove away from the main party. “People expect to have a good time when they come here.”
Mr. Wilson said he and Ms. Brown founded their corporation as a way to share culture with their neighbors in downtown Louisville, turning a lodging into a full-scale contemporary art piece.
“We’ve been able to really reinvent the business district right here in Louisville,” he said of the property comprising five formerly empty buildings. “It wasn’t what we expected, [and] we never dreamed it would be so successful we’d be [expanding]. But we’re having a great time and making good friends.”
Victoria and I need to rest, so we bid our hosts good evening and drive 50 miles east to Frankfort, and the only lodging within my budget for 100 miles in any direction on this popular weekend.
As an Englishwoman, horse racing is more or less in Victoria’s blood — she’s attended the 2000 Guineas Stakes at Newmarket — and she’s beyond excited for Derby Day.
The weather gods are, if not smiling, snickering, with a steady rain falling upon us as we make our way back to Louisville from the state capital, all dressed up in our finery. The precipitation soon settles into a drizzle, and by the time we are parked and take the shuttle bus to Churchill Downs, has stopped completely.
It’s going to be a good day.
After having walked through every part of the track last year and meeting many interesting people, Victoria and I are intent on heading to the paddock, where the horses are brought out for “inspection” by the public and racing officials prior to the bugle’s call. Reporters are everywhere , as are Sen. McConnell and even Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. As opposed to when I espied Mr. McConnell on my flight in yesterday, now he is dressed to the nines, as befits both his home state and the event.
The jockeys bring forth the thoroughbreds as thousands of cellphones snap away at the amazing animals. I can’t help but smile at the stable for Oscar Performance. Given my lifelong love of film — and my professional life writing about it — it’s assured I’ll be putting some coin down on this charger.
In the 6th floor seating area, replete with fashionably coiffed high-rollers, drinks and food for the gathered, Victoria finds a place to peruse over the racing booklet. To my eyes, it’s difficult to parse, but thankfully, there’s a cheat sheet near the front of the publication that details each horse’s age, record, odds and other viable stats.
Of course, the story of the weekend is Patch, the one-eyed steed with odds stacked against him. I love an underdog, and the payout will be grand if he comes in, so down my money goes on the singular-orbited horse. (While in line at the wagering window, I run into none other than Mr. Yarmuth, who graciously shakes my hand despite, I suspect, not recalling my face from the darkened 21c event last evening.)
Victoria is far more scientific, and after poring over the stats for hours, she’s got her win, place and show: Thunder Snow, Girvin and Patch.
A full hour before the big race, the gentry push onto the balconies to get a primo viewing spot. From here there’s a vantage of nearly the entire track, the smell of liquor and cigars never far off. I strike up conversation with a group of students from a small liberal arts college in South Carolina, as well as some racegoers who have traveled, in some cases, for days just to be here.
Harry Connick Jr., a native Southerner, sings the national anthem, followed by the crowd all crooning along to the “Kentucky Anthem,” thankfully with words to help any out-of-staters — to say nothing of any Yankees or Brits.
The 20 horses are paraded around the track, and various sections of the Downs cheer as their choice is announced. The starting gate is loaded, a collective inhalation takes place, and they’re off!
It was never much of a contest. Always Dreaming soon is ahead of the pack, and long before the final turn, it’s his race to lose, with jockey John Velazquez pulling him to the finish line over two lengths ahead of the runners-up, Looking at Lee and Battle of Midway, pumping his fist into the sky.
Patch finishes a distant 14th, but he’ll always be a winner to me.
None of Victoria’s horses came in either. It’s amusing: Of the four races we bet on today, we didn’t make back a dime.
There are still more races to be run, but with the big one of 2017 now in the books, we decide to find dinner. To help my English girlfriend cross yet another state off her list — and to avoid some of the inevitable post-Derby insanity — we cross the Ohio River into Indiana and make our way to Cast Iron Steak House (1207 E Market St, Jeffersonville, Indiana, 47130, 812/590-2298).
For starters we try out the shrimp wrapped in bacon and pan-fried in a spicy BBQ, which is about as wonderful a hangover remedy as one could hope for (I may have overdone it a tad yesterday). The most amazing garlic butter is served up for bread.
For entrees, my ladyfriend, who is rather particular about her steaks, gets the New York Strip cooked medium and served with fries and a green beans side — and, at $20.99 for 10 ounces, is a bargain you won’t likely find anywhere in D.C. The steak is succulent as butter, and positively melts on the tongue. Still feeling the effects of yesterday, I decide on the black and bleu steak pasta, featuring blackened beef tenderloin served over linguine and tossed with bleu cheese crumbles.
Even though I’m still a bit under the shade of yesterday’s fun, we head back into Louisville for a round of whiskey. A friend recommended the Haymarket Whiskey Bar (331 E Market St, Louisville, Kentucky, 40202, 502/442-0523) which boasts more varieties of bourbon, scotch, Irish, Canadian and other American whiskeys than you are likely to find in one spot south of the Mason-Dixon Line.
Still in Derby attire, Victoria and I roll up to the bar to order a scotch a bourbon, respectively. A Louisvillian, all smiles and ever welcoming, sees our getups insists that he pay. It’s a testament to the character of this region, to the hospitality, to the vibrancy and the welcoming of outsiders that is too little spoken of.
It’s been quite a weekend, and we need some rest back in Frankfort before we turn right around tomorrow for the Louisville airport. I must admit, I’m feeling a bit bummed. I didn’t get to chat with many celebs this year on the red carpet, and the “newness” factor was a bit missing after the amazing time I had last year … alone.
And then it hits me, in a moment of selfless reflexion atypical in a narcissistic profession such as writing: The single best moment of the weekend was seeing Victoria enjoy herself. She’s wanted to come to the Derby since she was a young lass in the U.K., and she finally has done so — the joy of being here with me far outweighing whatever coinage she may have lost on betting.
I smile and nudge her in the seat, and tell her of my revelation. She smiles and is already inquiring about next year.
Eric Althoff is Travel Editor for The Washington Times. Last year he won a few bucks betting on Exaggerator — the winnings for which he split with Victoria, who picked the horse.
Copyright © 2017 The Washington Times, LLC.