Thirsty Thursday: Bourbon, tequila the stars this weekend

May 4, 2017 GMT

Rev up those livers, Boston.

A pair of hard-drinking virtual holidays that have a disruptive impact on the American spirits industry converge this weekend, with the tequila-fueled celebration of Cinco de Mayo tomorrow followed by the nattily dressed great American bourbon bash called the Kentucky Derby on Saturday. There’s apparently a horse race, too.

“These are two annual events that have a material impact on the way people drink,” said Ian Grossman, the general manager and partner behind The Smoke Shop, the year-old Kendall Square hotspot dedicated to three all-American culinary art forms, craft beer, bourbon and barbecue.


There are only a handful of disruptive drinking days on the calendar — days that “disrupt” our normal drinking habits for those 24 hours or more. Super Bowl Sunday is one, when beer sales skyrocket; St. Patrick’s Day is another, when Guinness and Irish whiskey enjoy their biggest sales of the year. The two others unfold within days of each other each May, Cinco de Mayo on the fifth, of course, and the derby on the first Saturday of the month.

Cinco de Mayo, a minor Mexican holiday co-opted by Americans to the point that it’s jokingly called Cinco de Gringo, fuels tequila and mescal sales and margarita consumption; the Kentucky Derby, an all-American tradition deeply rooted in the nation’s love affair with horses and spectacle, sparks renewed interest in bourbon, a whiskey that can be made only in America, and typically in Kentucky.

The United States is already the world’s largest consumer of both spirits. But the boozy holidays come at a time when both spirits are experiencing a major boom. Americans in recent years not only drink more tequila and bourbon than ever before, we’re drinking higher-quality products as well.

Sales of super-premium tequila exploded an incredible 706 percent from 2002 to 2016, said Kelley McDonough, spokeswoman for the Distilled Spirits Council, an industry trade group. Super-­premium bourbon sales grew 127 percent over the same period, with rye whiskey surging by more than 500 percent.

The frosty, refreshing, bourbon-based mint julep, meanwhile, is the true winner of the Kentucky Derby each year, argues whiskey expert Fred Minnick, author of “Bourbon: The Rise, Fall & Rebirth of An American Whiskey” (Voyager Press, 2016).

“Americans drink a ton of bourbon no matter what,” Minnick said. “But if not for the Kentucky Derby, the mint julep would have been a forgotten, also-ran of a drink from the 1800s. Instead, we see mint juleps poured in every city of the country on derby day.”


Churchill Downs, the site of the great race, will pour about 150,000 mint juleps alone on Saturday It’s all part of the event’s incomparable vibe of rural Americana.

“When you go to the derby it’s like stepping back in time,” said Minnick, who will pour bourbon Saturday at the Kentucky Derby Museum inside Churchill Downs. “The gentlemen are still dressed to the nines and the ladies are wearing their gorgeous hats. People drank juleps at the first Kentucky Derby in 1875 and they still drink them today. If not for everyone on their cellphone, you’d still think it was the 1950s.”