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    So there’s Keith Anderson in the big white tent, just being his friendly, wide-smiling self, stocking the bar for Brown-Forman’s annual Derby party on company grounds. And there’s Mark Bacon, vice president and global brand director for Woodford Reserve. And there’s the 2017 commemorative Woodford Reserve Derby bottle featuring artwork by a Chicago artist. Anderson casts his line to Bacon. It goes something like: “You know, these artists are good. But I’m no slouch either. One day, I will have the art for that Derby bottle.” Bacon nods, says, “OK, be patient. Maybe one day.”

    Then a few months later, in October, there’s Anderson, an 11-year veteran of the Bourbon Street Cafe, the private dining room at Brown-Forman headquarters off West Broadway. It’s weekly meeting time, and there’s Bacon. Why is he here? That’s what Anderson thinks before noticing that a lot of higher-ups are attending the meeting. Bacon has a secret. “Can I make an announcement?” he asks. And the answer is of course, yes, because Bacon’s really, really important. “Keith Anderson, would you do the artwork for this year’s Derby bottle?” It’s a wonder Anderson’s heart doesn’t catapult from his body Looney Tunes-style. He’s that stunned.

    Soon after, the 52-year-old heads to the studio in the basement of his home off Westport Road, staying up until “two or three” in the morning every night for about a week. Acrylic paints by his side, brush in hand, he starts with the center horse, a dark-brown powerhouse carrying a jockey in green silks. From there, he works his way out, capturing an electric surge of Derby horses bursting from the starting gate.

    Since 2003, Brown-Forman has recruited artists from around the globe to create its signature Woodford Reserve Derby bottle. (Woodford Reserve is the presenting sponsor of this year’s Derby, replacing Yum! Brands.) Anderson is the first African-American and the first Brown-Forman employee hired for the job. The youngest of ten, Anderson grew up in west Louisville and graduated from Valley High School. He credits a talented older brother with introducing him to sketching and painting. Anderson studied art at Murray State University and U of L, sometimes selling artwork to help pay tuition.

    Tens of thousands of Derby bottles (Brown-Forman doesn’t release exact production figures) will be on shelves from March until mid-May in stores all over the world. By the first week of March, a friend in California had already texted Anderson pictures of the artwork wrapping a 750-milliliter bourbon bottle.

    The Brown-Forman archives now house Anderson’s painting. His email inbox is stacked with requests for signatures and commissioned artwork. Anderson says his story is proof that “hard work pays off.” His voice warms and his eyes glisten when he mentions a call that came after the October announcement. It was his older brother, the one who introduced him to art and gave up on it himself a long time ago. “He said, ‘Bro, I’m so proud of you. You stuck with it. And look what happened,’” Anderson recalls, a grin rising and settling for a few moments, like he’s still soaking it all in.

    This originally appeared in the April 2018 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe to Louisville Magazineclick here. To find us on newsstands, click here.

    Photos courtesy of Woodford Reserve.

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