This Kentucky Distillery Is Honoring the Black Jockeys Who Changed the Derby Forever

Each year, Woodford Reserve creates a unique mint julep recipe along with a commemorative cup to support an equine-related charity. Proceeds from this year's cup sales benefit the Project to Protect African-American Turf History. The Kentucky-based non-profit organization has been working for more than a decade to tell the history of the Black jockeys who dominated the racing industry in its early years, later to be pushed out due to racism and segregation. According to their website, 13 of the 15 jockeys in the first Kentucky Derby were Black, and African-American jockeys won 15 of the first 28 runnings of the Derby.

Gold and Silver commemorative mint julep cups went on sale in early April, each engraved with the name of a Black jockey and the year or years he won the Kentucky Derby. Gold-plated cups are priced at $2,500 and and silver-plated cups sell for $1,000. The cups are sent along with the recipe for the Cherries and Cream Julep, inspired by the Derby Day menus of the late 1800s and early 1900s when Black jockeys won their races.

Travel + Leisure spoke to Rob Owens, Native Kentuckian and Harlem resident who founded Harlem Derby, another organization that's letting the world know that Kentucky Derby history is part of Black history. 

"In 2013, I founded Harlem Derby to honor and celebrate the achievements of Black horsemen in the Kentucky Derby. I also had the goal of creating something that would help to maintain the cultural essence of Harlem," Owens said. "On May 1, 2021, we are introducing the Harlem Derby Music Festival, to take the Derby experience in Harlem into a whole new realm. It will be an outdoor celebration featuring artists from the Tri-State area to explore the roots of African-American music through a journey into the legacy of Black jockeys in the Kentucky Derby." 

"Jockey Willie Simms was a two-time Kentucky Derby winner aboard Ben Brush in 1896 and aboard Plaudit in 1898," Owens told T+L. "Jockey Isaac Burns Murphy competed in 11 Kentucky Derby races and won three of them, the first jockey to win the Derby three times. He's considered one of the greatest riders in American thoroughbred racing history."

T+L also spoke to Elizabeth McCall, Woodford Reserve assistant master distiller, one of many women moving into key roles in the distilling industry. "I began as a sensory technician for quality control taste testing. After a promotion, I traveled to our global production facilities to train our teams on sensory methods," McCall said. "In 2014, I took an internal class on spirits, leading master distiller Chris Morris to offer me an opportunity to train as a master taster. I gained valuable experience, and in February of 2018, I was named assistant master distiller."

McCall described Woodford Reserve's products that include Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey, Kentucky straight rye whiskey, a pre-prohibition style rye whiskey, and several others. The special Woodford Reserve Baccarat Edition is finished in select XO Cognac barrels and presented in a bespoke Baccarat crystal decanter. 

If you're planning to celebrate the Kentucky Derby on May 1 with a mint julep, we present the recipe for this year's commemorative Cherries & Cream Julep as well as the traditional mint julep. Look for Woodford Reserve in the 2021 Kentucky Derby bottle featuring the artwork of Louisville resident Richard Sullivan, a stunning watercolor of thoroughbreds thundering down the stretch.

Cherries & Cream Julep

  • 2 oz. Woodford Reserve Kentucky Straight Bourbon
  • .5 oz cherry juice
  • Half a vanilla bean pod, cut into small segments (Vanilla bean pods represent the cream)
  • 1 teaspoon powdered sugar
  • Mint sprig, cherry, and vanilla bean pod for garnish
  • Crushed ice

In the julep cup, add .5 oz cherry juice. Add half a vanilla bean pod cut into small segments. Add 1 tsp. of powdered sugar. Muddle or mix together. Add crushed ice to 2/3 of the cup. Add 2 oz of Woodford Reserve. Top off the cup with crushed ice. Garnish with a mint sprig, real cherry, and vanilla bean pod.

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