Food & Drink

Is a New Kentucky Derby Cocktail, the Spire, Outpacing the Julep?

The refreshing combination of bourbon, lemonade, and cranberry juice just might tempt you to switch horses

A lemon next to a copper cocktail cup with ice and a lemon peel garnish

Photo: courtesy of Woodford Reserve

Talk about a longshot: No libation is more closely identified with a sporting spectacle than the mint julep and the Kentucky Derby. After all, the julep got out of the gate early by being named the event’s official drink way back in 1939, and now an impressive 120,000 of the bourbon-and-mint concoctions are downed by thirsty racegoers at Churchill Downs. But hold onto your huge hats, Derby traditionalists, as a much newer bourbon cocktail, the Woodford Reserve Spire, is moving up fast from behind to become an odds-on favorite.

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First introduced at the 2018 Derby, the Spire’s blend of bourbon, lemonade, and cranberry juice won immediate fans. “Mint juleps are a fairly polarizing drink,” says Elizabeth McCall, master distiller at Woodford Reserve, which is sponsoring the Derby. “I don’t know anyone who is like, ‘I can’t wait to have a julep.’ People do it at the Derby or Derby parties because it’s a thing. But people love the Spire.”

The drink’s Derby debut had a bit of an inside track. A mix of lemonade and cranberry juice was already offered at the distillery as a booze-free option, but that didn’t dissuade visitors from spiking it—and declaring the result delicious. When transferred to the big stage of Churchill Downs, the new cocktail was dubbed Spire after the grandstand’s iconic twin towers.

“It’s so refreshing,” McCall says. “Bourbon is complex. The lemonade brings sweetness and citrus brightness but not much depth, so the cranberry rounds out a deeper flavor with bold berry notes. People always say they never thought of putting those flavors together. I’ve converted a lot of them.”

photo: courtesy of Woodford Reserve

The drink is also well suited to a long, hot day at the track. “Unlike the race itself, attending the Derby is a marathon,” McCall says. “You want a drink that’s a long sipper, and to me that entails bourbon and lots of ice. As the ice melts, it dilutes the drink and helps cool you down.”

McCall will attend the Derby, of course, and has a plan to pace herself. “I will, of course, have a mint julep because you have to, and it’s good in the morning,” she says. “And then I’ll have a Spire or two, and maybe finish with just some Woodford Reserve on the rocks.”

Except for during the actual two minutes of the race, she’ll also be taking notice of what others are imbibing, and you can, too. When the cameras scan groups of revelers on the infield or in the stands, look for the telltale copper cups—a nod to traditional silver julep cups—that hold Woodford Reserve Spires. Could the crowd’s drink of choice come down to a photo finish? McCall thinks so. “I think the Spire is getting really close, and maybe this is the year.”



    • 1½ oz. Woodford Reserve Straight Bourbon Whiskey

    • 2 oz. lemonade

    • 1 oz. cranberry juice

    • Lemon slice (for garnish)


  1. Add bourbon, lemonade, and cranberry juice to a mixing glass and stir. Pour over ice. Garnish with a lemon slice.