Many 19th century distillers had herds of cattle, a pig lot and even a chicken coop. The spent mash, or “slop,” from distilling whiskey made good feed for these animals. In fact, if the distiller could prove that a certain number of cattle or pigs were dependent upon this food supply, the government could not stop them from distilling even if the distiller was in violation of a regulation. Some people might then believe that this was also the reason there has been a tie between the horse breeding and racing industry and distillers. However, this is not the case. The spent mash is a very good feed for cattle and swine, but horses can-not digest this food very well and often get sick if fed distillers slop.

So what is the tie between these two traditional industries in Kentucky? The answer lies back in the dates of frontier Kentucky and the trade with New Orleans. The trip to New Orleans was a long and dangerous trip. Bandits and native Americans were waiting to rob the flatboater or lone traveler. Legend has it that once in New Orleans, Kentuckians who opted to come back to Kentucky via the Natchez Trace would purchase the fastest horses they could find to make the trip. The idea was that the fast horse could outrun the trouble and bring you home safely.  Once home, you also had a fast horse to breed and race. Many distillers made this trip and owned fast horses, but steamboats soon made the overland trip unnecessary However, horse racing had become an industry in itself and some distillers were involved in both distilling and breeding fast horses. 

The American Civil War devastated both the distilling and racing industries in Kentucky. Horses were needed for the cavalry and copper stills, when found by the Army, could be melted down to make brass cannons. It is not until the 1870s that both industries recovered and prospered. The Gaines family of Old Crow fame were also breeders of horses. James E. Pepper also purchased and bred fast horses. Pepper had horses in several Kentucky Derbys and his filly, Miss Dixie even won the Kentucky Oaks in 1892. The Applegate family were distillers who had the brand Old Rosebud that they trademarked in 1869. In 1914, they also had a horse named Old Rosebud who won the Kentucky Derby. The horse was named for the whiskey, not the other way around as some think.

 Even after Repeal, horse racing and distilling remained close. The distillers were using the imagery of the race track and horse farms in their advertising. Distilleries and their brands often sponsored races. Even into the 21st century, Woodford Reserve invested money into a thoroughbred horse and offered shares to their Bourbon fans. The mint julep, pretty women in hats and race horses were all found in their advertising. By the 1960s, distilleries were offering ceramic decanters with a Derby theme every spring. Other distilleries offered special bottlings such as the Maker’s Mark Keenland bottles and the Woodford Reserve Derby bottle, decorated by a different artist every year. 

The distilling industry in Kentucky has deep ties to horse racing. These ties are reflected with distilleries from other states every year on the first Saturday in May. Distilleries will host Derby parties and offer mint juleps made with their products to attendees. Bourbon whiskey and thoroughbred horses are linked by a shared heritage that will not be broken. 

Photos Courtesy of Rosemary Miller