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Bartenders Name The Best Bourbons To Drink While Watching The ‘Virtual Kentucky Derby’

We’re living in some very strange times. We’re stuck in our homes for the foreseeable future, professional sports are pretty much locked in a holding pattern, and large gatherings are completely out of the question. Major events like the Olympics and state fairs have either been moved or canceled outright. This includes this weekend’s Kentucky Derby.

Usually taking place on the first Saturday of May, the Kentucky Derby has been run 145 times. The last time it was postponed (it’s currently slated for September 5th) was 1945 — that gives you some idea of how serious the cancellation is. In an attempt to keep the derby spirit alive, NBC is broadcasting a virtual race using computer-simulated horses this Saturday at 12 pt / 3 et. If you’d rather not watch some computer horses running around an animated track, Old Forester is also hosting a derby, using turtles instead of horses on Saturday night (yes, really). Either way, both events can only be made better by being paired with bourbon (and big hats, if you wish).

We asked some of our favorite bartenders to tell us the best bourbons to drink while watching animated horses or real-life turtles race around a track for literally no reason other than the futile attempt to make us all feel normal for a few fleeting moments. Because if you’re going to be watching either of these races, you’re going to want a stiff drink.

Woodford Reserve Double Oaked

Matt Shields, bartender at The Bay Restaurant in Santa Rosa Beach, Florida

I have an eye for aesthetics and an appreciation for the classics. That’s why I think Woodford Reserve Double Oaked is the way to go with a Julep. It’s always the first whiskey to pop in my head when the derby is mentioned, or if a julep is requested at the bar.

Wild Turkey 101

Jessi Lorraine, bartender at Elda in San Francisco

I really love Wild Turkey 101 bourbon for that perfect spicy/smooth combination. Both have great punchy spice notes on the front and finish soft and sweet on the back of the palate.

Maker’s Mark

Amanda Carto, bartender at Nickel City in Austin, Texas

I’ve always been partial to Maker’s Mark. It’s a wheated bourbon with a high corn ratio in its mash bill, which carries through in its taste with a smooth finish. It’s a great sipping bourbon neat or on the rocks, and at 90 proof holds up well in a cocktail without being overshadowed.

Woodford Reserve

Gabriela Dimovska, general manager at V DTLA in Los Angeles

I would stay classy and go with the Woodford Reserve, which is made where the derby is held. As a Swede in the US (a very recent move) I wouldn’t dare to be different on Derby Day. Plus, it’s a pretty cool way to serenade the OG Kentucky bourbon.

Four Roses Single Barrel

Danielle Becker, bartender at the Aspen Meadows Resort in Aspen, Colorado

For simple tasty classic bourbon cocktails, I love using Four Roses. When making a bourbon cocktail like the julep, all the flavors need to blend together yes, but also, the bourbon needs to stand up next to all that ice and dilution. That’s why I love the Single Barrel from Four Roses — it’s high proofed but also flavorful to add something sweet to the drink.

Buffalo Trace

Freddy Concepcion Ucan Tuz, bartender at JW Marriott in Cancun, Mexico

Buffalo Trace Straight Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey. It’s a great bourbon with soft notes of vanilla and subtle fruit, with oak and drying spice that prove fantastic for a mint julep. It makes the mint julep well balanced.


Wesley MacDonald, owner of Caña Bar and Kitchen in Curaçao

Make sure it is quality, yet affordable. What you put in, is what you get out. If you use a beautiful, cask strength, single-barrel bourbon, it will definitely result in a delicious julep, however, it can better be enjoyed at the end of the party and then use a decent bourbon such as Bulleit or Maker’s for the juleps.

Old Forester Birthday

David Powell, Hudson Whiskey brand ambassador

I think that the Derby is a Kentucky born American tradition, and as such, it calls for a Kentucky-made bourbon. I could easily sub in Old Forester Birthday Bourbon, or a Russell’s Reserve, or Heaven Hill Bonded, or EH Taylor here, they’re all great representations of what makes Kentucky so important to American Whiskey. I want Hudson to own the Belmont Stakes, Kentucky deserves to own the derby.

Writer’s Picks:

Russell’s Reserve 10 Year

A few years ago, father and son duo Jimmy and Eddie Russell launched Russell’s Reserve, a higher-end Wild turkey series. They’ve dropped a handful of whiskeys, but the ten-year-old Russell’s Reserve bourbon is still one of the best, most affordable whiskeys on the market. The flavors of toffee, caramel, vanilla, and leather pair perfectly with the derby or literally any day.


Booker’s definitely isn’t for those new to bourbon. It’s barrel strength, uncut, and unfiltered. It’s bold and brash and full of flavors of vanilla, oak, and caramel and even though its high proof, it still remains smooth and sippable.