Distillers' Masterpiece

May's most exciting two minutes -- the Kentucky Derby -- bring two decisions each year: which horse to bet and which Bourbon to drink?

While it's fine to slosh well-brand Mint Juleps in the Churchill Downs infield as tons of horseflesh pound by, when your nag makes it to the winner's circle, the way to drink Bourbon is rich and neat. You want to celebrate with the class of the field, and in the world of corn-based whiskey, you can't get much more well heeled than the Distillers' Masterpiece tandem.

The race may be for three-year-olds, but fine rewards come in much older packages. Few Bourbons age more than the 18- and 20-year-old hyperpremiums from Jim Beam. If they seem adolescent compared with single-malt Scotches and Cognacs at twice the age, consider that Kentucky's searing summers and frigid winters drag flavor from the barrel faster than any other spirit. In that climate, two decades in new, charred-oak barrels can be geriatric.

In 1999, Beam first tested the aging stratosphere with the 18-year-old, a collaboration between Booker Noe, the grandson of Jim Beam and creator of Booker's True Barrel, and Alain Royer, the renegade Cognac maker and cigar aficionado from the Fussigny house. The trick was an extra year or more of finishing in a Cognac barrel. The result was sublime, a huge Bourbon flavor loaded with all the orange, leather, vanilla, maple, nuts and honey of Booker's, but without the attendant heat. The Cognac cultured the backwoodsman with utter finesse and also left its distinct brandy taste on the palate.

Two years later, Beam took 20-year-old Bourbon and turned to Daryl Groom of its California Geyser Peak winery for the finishing touch. Extra aging in Port barrels created another refined flavor bomb, this time an elegant, toasty quaff that hits the tongue with explosions of licorice, maple, apple, caramel, vanilla, coffee and lots and lots of wood. You won't, however, find telltale signs of Port as you would traces of Cognac in the brandy-finished version.

Each expression comes in an impressive French glass decanter, the 99-proof 18-year-old in a display case with doors, the 98-proof 20-year-old on a pedestal inside a transparent box. Proud owners can also order a free personalized name tag for their bottles.

At the betting window you might want to consider a long shot as Distillers' Masterpiece also pushes the outer limits of what Bourbon can cost: $250 for the 18, $300 for the 20.

Available in better liquor stores.