Penny Chenery: 91-proof personality

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“If you like bourbon, this will be fun,” Four Roses master distiller Jim Rutledge told Secretariat owner Penny Chenery as he escorted her into the brand’s bottling facility in Cox’s Creek, Ky., where she was to select two single-barrel bourbons to fill a special decanter and bottle commemorating the 40th anniversary of her horse’s incredible Triple Crown sweep.

“I love bourbon!” she replied. And soon, everyone in the room loved Penny, a warm, witty woman who still cracks wise at the age of 91.

“Is this the earliest in the day you’ve enjoyed a dram of whiskey?” my bourbon-writing colleague Fred Minnick asked her (the event started at 10 a.m.). “Don’t be personal,” she shot back immediately, to the delight of the media crowd.

Wearing a deep blue jacket and a blue-and-white checked scarf, the colors of Meadow Stable, Penny sampled barrel-strength Four Roses from 10 barrels – five each for the decanter and the bottle. She chose Barrel No. 5 both times. The bourbon will be cut to the brand’s usual 100 proof for bottling, said Jim, who signed the winning barrels along with Penny following the selection. The 500 decanters will be sold at the Kentucky Derby Museum on May 1; the 3,500 bottles will be sold along the Triple Crown trail this spring in Kentucky, Maryland and New York.

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I asked Penny whether, as a female thoroughbred owner, she was conscious of being a trailblazer during Secretariat’s record-setting career. “No, I had a job to do,” she said. “As a woman, you have to realize that any time you step out of the ordinary, you’re going to get some criticism. But the way I looked at it was: They could have their prejudices. I had the horse.”

The Triple Crown run was a remarkable time in her life, she said, and the mystique of her horse has carried on through the generations. Secretariat wasn’t just an amazing athlete, she noted: “He turned out to be a ham. He loved attention, and so did I. My trainer and I made a deal. He didn’t like talking to the fans; he wanted to focus on the training. So he said, ‘I’ll do the horse; you do the people.’ And that’s what I’ve been doing for 40 years.”

She certainly charmed everyone at the event, including Jim, who said the partnership with the Secretariat team was the most exciting thing he could recall in his 47 years in the business.

Making her final choice, Penny said, “I will take any of them home.” “You can take ALL of them home,” Jim replied. “Barrels?” she asked. Jim: “We might be able to work something out.”

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The Bourbon Babe

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