The Inclusion of Color in the Kentucky Derby

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Woodford Reserve released their 19th annual Kentucky Derby commemorative bottle with a significant and phenomenal choice of artwork by emerging artist, Keith Anderson. He is the first African American artist to receive the honor of painting for Woodford and is also a longtime employee who works in the private dining room of the Brown Foreman Headquarters.  The bottle depicts a lineup of thoroughbreds in full stride sprinting from the starting gates. The gate markers and racing silks are striking and vibrant colors balanced out by shades of brown horse manes and mud around their hooves. The image captures the immediate sense of excitement and energy that is generated around the first seconds of the world’s most watched race, the Run for the Roses.

 

While the release of this commemorative bottle continues to grow in demand every year, this particular label draws a significant connection to the role that African Americans played in the formative years of the Kentucky Derby. Out of the 15 riders who participated in the very first derby in 1875, 13 were African American.  African Americans dominated the sport by winning 15 of the first 28 derby races until 1904 when government sanctioned Jim Crow laws were implemented and forbade them from competing in horseracing. This not only had a damaging effect on the riders, who were considered American Heroes in their communities, but the overall involvement of African Americans within the sport. It would be almost 100 years before another African American would race again in the Kentucky Derby.

The erasure of African Americans from the Kentucky Derby falls right in line with today’s concern for diversity and inclusion in all industries, including the bourbon industry. For generations, African Americans have played an essential role in the production of whiskey – from distilling, to working on the bottling line, being the tour guide, and prepping the meals in the cafeterias. They are valuable members of the bourbon community that are often seen but rarely acknowledged for their contributions to the success of this industry. However, Woodford Reserve’s artist selection of Keith Anderson, a talented artist from its own employee roster, is a huge step in the right direction.

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The bourbon in this bottle is just like any other bottle of Woodford Reserve Distillers Select. However, this year’s color-bursting Kentucky Derby Commemorative label makes it worthy of joining any respectable whiskey collection. It is an honest acknowledgement of Woodford’s commitment to diversity. It’s a beautiful bottle with rich hues, rediscovering an often-overlooked derby legacy, and a significant opportunity to lead the charge in highlighting inclusion within the bourbon industry and on the racetrack.

Published May 1, 2018 in Bourbon Zeppelin Newsletter