How To Host A Kentucky Derby Party – And Some Bourbon & Food Recipes For It

Paul Robinson, Bernie, Jeniffer Tilley

Paul Robinson, Bernie, Jeniffer Tilley

How To Host A Kentucky Derby Party
& Some Bourbon and Food Recipes

So you say you want to have a Kentucky Derby party? It’s a great party theme, and you get to watch the event live on TV. Over the years I’ve noticed the best Derby parties I’ve thrown and attended include betting, cocktails, and of course a little food. So here’s some suggestions for your Derby party.

Betting makes everything more fun. Why do you think Jai Lai has lasted as long as it has? Thanks to technology you can bet on the big race itself, and you can bet on the races at Churchill Downs all day and remember, there’s a race following the Derby too. You can make live bets, get track odds, and even see a program of all the races by setting up an account at

I suggest setting your account up a day or two prior just to make sure it’s all set to go. Encourage your guests to set up their own accounts too so they’re not all mooching off you, or you can play “bookie” and make a little money off them by taking a %. It’s easy, and there’s no charge to do so, well unless you pick the wrong horses! Just tell your guests to bring their iPads or tablets to the party, and they can bet on the races too. It’s so funny when the person who seems to think they know the most about betting the ponies lose, and the ones that bet on names and colors win! I even like to bet on the Derby Prep Races the weeks before the Kentucky Derby so I can be familiar with the horses by the time the first Saturday in May rolls around.

What’s a party without cocktails? With the Derby it’s all about bourbon cocktails too. So here are a few suggestions.
If you’re expecting a fairly large crowd, it’s nice to have a batched cocktail that you can make them ahead of time and pour out ready to go. I get a couple gallon container with a pour spout on it, but you can use a pitcher too. A Bourbon Sour Cocktail is great to batch up and it’s simple:

Bourbon Sour
Get a can of frozen concentrated lemonade and put that in the container. Then fill that same can full of water and add it to the container. Fill that same can up with pulp free orange juice and add. Finally fill the lemonade can up with bourbon. Repeat as needed to fill up the container or pitcher, and then all that’s left to do is fill a glass with ice, pour over, and serve. Men and women alike love it.
During Derby week thousands of people attend breakfast at the track, all prepared by my buddy, Executive Chef David Danielson. Can you imagine a job where your first week back to work you feed 400,000 people? But he does it every year with a smile on his face because he works at one of the most iconic venues on the planet and the Most Exciting Two Minutes In Sports. During breakfast that week folks get to watch the early morning workouts of the majestic thoroughbreds in for the Kentucky Oaks and Kentucky Derby. So these two cocktails compliment breakfast and brunch.

Bourbon Lettuce and Tomato Cocktail
Quite simple since you’ve already made this drink hundreds of times. It’s just a Bloody Mary but instead of using vodka, use bourbon. You see vodka brings only alcohol to the Bloody Mary, whereas bourbon brings alcohol AND flavor to this classic drink…and being that it’s the Kentucky Derby, bourbon is a natural fit. I use Evan Williams Black Label 86 proof bourbon in mine. It’s a great everyday whiskey and the 5 years of aging and 86 proof brings some good barrel notes to compliment and enhance the Bloody Mary’s ingredients. If ya want to get cute, garnish it with a baked slice of thick bacon!

Dawn At The Downs Cocktail
In a Champagne flute add
1 ounce of bourbon (I like Elijah Craig 12 for a little more spice, or Evan Williams Single Barrel for more vanilla)
Top off with Martinelli’s Sparkling Apple Cider
Garnish with an apple slice

The Mint Julep
Of course the Mint Julep is the official drink of the Kentucky Derby and has been since Larwin won the race in 1938 with Eddie Arcaro up in the stirrups. In 1938 that bourbon would more than likely been Bottled In Bond since prohibition ended four years before, and it takes 4 years for a bourbon to meet this standard. Bottled In Bond is my favorite category in whiskey, and there’s not that many left these days, so here’s how I’d build my Mint Julep as I was schooled by Suzie Hoyt over at the Silver Dollar in Louisville;

Take about 5 or 6 mint leaves and tear them off the stalk and place them all in your palm.
Clap them with the fingers of your opposite hand…this “wakes up” the mint.
With a bar spoon, take those 5 leaves and run them around the inside of your glass, or sterling silver mint julep cup, then discard the leaves
Add .5 oz simple syrup
Add 2 ounces of Evan Williams White Label Bottled In Bond Bourbon
Fill the glass half was with crushed ice and give it a little stir, then fill it up to the brim and lightly pack it, and then add more crushed ice and then crown the ice with your hand (ala snow cone style)
Insert a full sprig of mint in the ice
Insert a short straw (no other way to get the drink to you with the crushed ice, plus makes you put your nose close to the mint…folklore says the Mint Julep was the origin of the straw).

Old Fashioned Cocktail
As bourbon history has it around 1880 The Old Fashioned Cocktail was first made at the Pendennis Club in Louisville, KY (also the home of Henry Baines Sauce) when the distiller, Colonel James Pepper ordered a drink from the bar and asked for a bourbon cocktail but made in the “old fashioned” way. That would have been with muddling fruit and using sugar and bitters. So here ya go:
2 oz whiskey (I like Evan Williams Single Barrel Bourbon, or Bernheim Origianal Wheat Whiskey)
2 dashes Angostura® bitters
1 splash water
1 tsp sugar
1 maraschino cherry
1 orange wedge
Mix sugar, water and angostura bitters in an old-fashioned glass. Drop in a cherry and an orange wedge. Muddle into a paste using a muddler or the back end of a spoon. Pour in bourbon, fill with ice cubes, and stir.


Louisville is known for some local fare you might want to include. One is a spread called Benedictine. A Louisville restaurateur and cook book author named Jennie Carter Benedict came up with this cucumber and crème cheese spread around 1900. You can use it for finger sandwiches or as a dip
• 1 large cucumber
• 8 ounces cream cheese, softened
• 2 tablespoons grated onion
• 1/4 tsp salt
• 1 tablespoon mayonnaise
• dash green food coloring (optional)
Pare, grate, and drain cucumber. Combine with remaining ingredients in food processor.

Pimiento Cheese Spread; again for sandwiches or dip
• 1 cup shredded sharp Cheddar cheese
• 1/4 cup diced pimiento
• 1/4 cup mayonnaise
• 2 teaspoons lemon juice
• salt and black or red pepper, to taste
In a bowl, combine the cheese, pimiento, mayonnaise, lemon juice; add salt and pepper, to taste. Beat with an electric mixer until well blended.
Makes about 1 cup

Derby Pie is a Kentucky Derby tradition and it’s passionately trade marked by Kern’s Kitchen in Louisville, KY. So why not have the real deal for your party? You can indeed order pie online there at their site.

Bourbon Ice Cream
This is what I like to make for my guests, and it’s so good and so damn easy. Put a couple scoops of ice cream in a wine glass, and then pour a shot of bourbon over the top. That’s it! Your guests will love spooning out and enjoying this awesome Kentucky dessert. I use vanilla ice cream which compliments the bourbon well. I also have mint chocolate chip ice cream and when I pour in the bourbon, it’s just like a Mint Julep dessert. Garnish it with a sprig of mint or half of a Thin Mint cookie if ya want to get fancy!

At the track it’s not just the social event of the season, but the fashion event of the season. It’s all about the hats and attire. I like to have a more casual gathering, but I insist everyone (that’s men included) wear a great Derby hat.

Celebrities are a big part of the race too, so why not put a red carpet out for your guests to arrive on then have yours and/or the neighbor kids to ham it up and dress up in fedoras and old time reporters and pelt them with TMZ style questions, “Mister Clooney…Is it true you’re dating Lady Gaga?” They will all LOVE it including the kids! It’s the Run For The Roses, so have roses everywhere for ambience.

The Kentucky Derby is like the Super Bowl & Mardi Gras all rolled in to one event at Churchill Downs. You and your guests will not only have a blast, but you/they just might win some money along the way too. And when they sing “My Old Kentucky Home” along with the 160,000 on TV with a bourbon cocktail in hand, don’t be surprised that you might just spot a tear or two in yours and your guest’s eyes.

About bernie
-Whiskey Professor for Heaven Hill -2009 and 2012 Icons of Whiskey Award Winner - Whiskey Ambassador of the Year US and Global

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