Race at Churchill Downs
Credit: Alexey Stiop / Shutterstock.com
The Kentucky Derby is a race steeped in tradition. From the twin spires of Churchill Downs, the derby hats and the roses placed on the winning horse, the "Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports" is as much a cultural experience and a sporting one.
Nothing, however, may be more symbolic of the Kentucky Derby than the mint julep. Since being introduced at the Derby in the late 1930s, the mint julep has become a race-day tradition. The marriage of the premiere sporting event of Kentucky and the drink that made the state famous, or vice versa, is seemingly a match made in heaven. But it was not until 1987 that Louisville, Ky.-based spirit company Brown-Forman used a bit of business savvy and capitalized on a long-standing relationship with Churchill Downs to introduce the Early Times mint julep as the "Official Drink of the Kentucky Derby."
For Early Times, that relationship was the conclusion of a journey that began more than a century before the company signed on to be an official sponsor of the first leg horse racing's Triple Crown.
"Early Times is one of the oldest spirit brands in America," Chris Morris, master distiller for Brown-Forman,which owns Early Times along with brands including Jack Daniels, Woodford Reserve, Southern Comfort and Korbel Champagne, said. "It dates back to 1860 and it takes the name from the brand originator's philosophy that he was going to make whiskey the way it was made in the early times, back in the days of old mash and open fires."
Jack Beam, founder of Early Times and uncle of Jim Beam, grew his distillery grew through the rest of that century and into the beginning of the next century until Prohibition closed the distillery's doors.
"The distillery was closed, but the warehouses were full of barrels of bourbon and whiskey with no legal way to be sold, except through the Volstead Act's medicinal use permit," Morris said. "Our parent company, Brown-Forman, had one of the six permits in the country. Early Times was acquired by Brown-Forman during Prohibition in 1923 for its whiskey ties."
That move brought the distillery from its original home just outside Bardstown, Ky., to Louisville, Ky., the home of Brown-Forman and the Kentucky Derby. Through the next few decades, Early Times continued to grow, becoming the top-selling bourbon in the world in 1953. It was not until several years later, though, that the company noticed an opportunity to capitalize on the racing ties of Brown-Forman executives to become an official sponsor of the race.
"The mint julep had been sold at the derby by the hawkers, the people who go through the grandstand, sort of like at a baseball game with hot dogs, peanuts and beer, for decades," said Morris of the drink that blends whiskey, sugar water and mint. "Brown-Forman said instead of making all these mint juleps in a batch, we can make the Early Times mint julep and bottle it, ensuring a better tasting and a more consistent product. Thus the idea was born and Churchill Downs agreed."
Since the two sides reached an agreement 25 years ago, it is estimated that more than 2.5 million mint juleps have been sold at Churchill Downs on Derby weekend, between the Kentucky Oaks and the Kentucky Derby. Each of those drinks has featured Early Times whiskey. Over 120,000 mint juleps are expected to be sold and 10,000 bottles of Early Times mint julep mix are expected to be used on Derby weekend.
In order to be ready for Derby weekend, the 12 Early Times distillery and 12 warehouse workers begin preparation in December. Those months of preparation, however, pay off in more ways than one when the race is run, especially considering the race was seen by 14.5 million viewers on television and a record-breaking 164,858 people were in attendance at last year's race. The partnership has proven invaluable for Early Times.
"In our case, sponsoring and partnering with a major signature event at an exclusive level and then tailoring a product for that event is certainly a great way to bring media and trade attention to the brand," Morris said. "That then brings consumer attention to the brand as well. The partnership has been very beneficial in keeping the brand alive and active in the minds of consumers."
Even though the derby is referred to as "the most exciting two minutes in sports," Early Times has been able to parlay their partnership with the derby into a year-round venture. One way the company accomplishes this is by sponsoring a yearly art contest that searches for the design which will be featured on the annual mint julep bottle.
"Later in the racing calendar, Early Times actually sponsors Mint Julep Handicap and in July, there will be an Early Times day at Churchill Downs," Morris said.
Although the partnership between Early Times and Churchill Downs seems to be a perfect fit, not all partnerships are created equally, Morris said. Businesses looking to benefit from a partnership must look beyond the bottom line and be sure that company values also match.
"When partnering, you need someone who appreciates your product and someone who will hold your standards up as high as you would like them," Morris said. "Churchill Downs is a perfect partner because they are so well-respected and our brand fits with them. You don’t want to have a partner who will present your brand in a poor light. A great partner does more than bring name value. They associate with your product on all levels."