For the first time ever, the Kentucky Derby will be run in September this year, having been postponed from its traditional May slot because of the pandemic. When the 3-year-old thoroughbreds take to the Churchill Downs racetrack, the usual throngs of brightly dressed spectators will be notably absent from the grandstands — another unfortunate first. But there is still cause for celebration.
As American whiskey fans will note, September is also National Bourbon Heritage Month. So why not commemorate the overlapping of the two and host a bourbon-themed Derby gathering? (And honestly, we’ll take any excuse for a celebration at this point. Thanks, 2020.)
Depending on where you are in the country, and who you’ve been quarantining with, this could mean a small outdoor event with friends and family. Or, you may be limited to an online celebration, assuming you’re not suffering from Zoom fatigue. Either way, this guide packs in everything you need to know to mark a (hopefully) once-in-a-lifetime “Race for the Roses.”
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Whether it’s traditional fare you seek, Derby Day cocktail ideas, or activities to keep you occupied throughout the day, here are eight tips for celebrating the Kentucky Derby from home.
Look the Part
There hasn’t been much cause for dressing up during the pandemic, so the Derby is as good an excuse as you’ll find this year. For this event, there is but one simple rule for staying on brand: Keep it colorful. Sure, fall is cantering towards us, but take heed from the official Derby website and aim for a spring-inspired palette. For women, traditional Derby attire involves a dress and hat. If you wish to go this route, choose a simple dress so as not to take away from the all-important hat — the more eccentric the better (and as a fun project with kids, consider making hats for the occasion out of fabric or colored paper). Gents: Think vibrant pants, powdery blazers, and a toned-down shirt to highlight an outlandish necktie. Bonus points awarded to those who sport a bow tie and manage to tie it themselves.
Don’t Stop Eating
Like all great celebrations, food plays an important role in Derby Day celebrations. So we reached out to Kentucky-based, James-Beard-Award-nominated chef Ouita Michel for recipe inspiration.
“People typically start their celebrations with a brunch,” she says. This brunch is a hearty two-course affair. Start with “little nibbles” like cheese wafers (a type of cheddar cheese dough that’s rolled into logs, sliced, and baked), spiced pecans, and country ham biscuits. If you only make one of those three make sure it is the biscuits. “Country ham is very traditional on Derby Day,” Michel says. “We serve it thinly sliced in a special kind of beaten biscuit with apple butter.”
Next comes brunch proper: Cheese grits soufflé, chicken croquettes, more sliced ham, and spoonbread, a cornmeal soufflé that’s served in a casserole dish. If an all-day affair is on the cards, look to lamb, another traditional Kentucky ingredient, for afternoon inspiration. Ouita suggests lamb chops with mint jelly or slow-cooked pulled lamb shoulder. Be sure to save some space for dessert, though. While only Kern’s Kitchen can claim the “official” Derby-Pie, tackle the chocolate and walnut dessert yourself for an ideal bourbon pairing.
Mint Juleps are a right of passage at the Derby. In a normal year, bartenders at Churchill Downs muddle a reported 1,000 pounds of fresh mint and scoop 60,000 pounds of crushed ice to serve 1,200 Mint Juleps. It’s a simple, cooling cocktail and one that can easily be whipped up at home. But the devil is in the details for perfecting the drink, so be sure to read the advice of top bartenders before you go anywhere near a bunch of mint.
Don’t like Juleps? No problem, you can still serve warm-weather bourbon cocktails. The Old Fashioned is the light-cotton sweater of cocktails — a timeless classic that transcends seasons. It’s also the official cocktail of Louisville. Alternatively, it doesn’t get more refreshing than a classic Whiskey Sour. And if you wish to depart from the beaten (race)track entirely, try out these perfect summer whiskey recipes.
In-Person Bourbon Tasting
In between all the eating and drinking, you’ll want to keep yourself and guests entertained. After all, the race will be over faster than you can shake up a Whiskey Sour. Given that the best entertaining takes place with a glass in hand, use this occasion to host a bourbon tasting.
First, you’ll need a few good bottles. Split among friends, if you wish so it’s not too expensive. Most brands’ core offerings will be easy to order, though limited-edition releases are harder to come by. Because it’s Derby Day, seek out brands with a tie to the race, says Susan Reigler, a Kentucky-based bourbon educator and author who devotes a chapter to hosting a Derby party in “Which Fork Do I Use with My Bourbon?”
Riegler’s picks include Four Roses, given that the rose has been the official flower of the Derby since 1904; Woodford Reserve, the official sponsor of the Derby; or Old Forester, the official Mint Julep bourbon. To give an educational angle to your tasting, Reigler suggests honing in on styles rather than brands. Focus on single-barrel or cask-strength releases, or include only bottles that share the same type of mash bill (high-rye, wheated, etc.).
Virtual Bourbon Tasting
Buying a selection of themed bottles is less of an option when celebrating online with friends. But that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy an educational bourbon tasting together. Exploring the bourbon flavor wheel with paired foods is a great way to hone your palate, says Ouita. It’s a technique she’s taught many times, including in this YouTube video. To start, compile a plate filled with ingredients that appear as common tasting descriptors, such as nuts, fresh and dried fruits, and maple syrup. Smell and taste each one alongside a glass of bourbon and see if they become more pronounced in the glass (they should). Opting for a slightly more expensive bottle here should provide a more complex tasting experience. Once again, you can link the selection to a brand with Derby ties.
Painting and Drinking
Every year, Woodford Reserve commissions a different artist to paint a special label for it’s Derby bottling. So why not design one of your own? The paint-and-sip trend needn’t be limited to wine, and a frosty Mint Julep or glass of bourbon will surely only fuel inspiration.
Richard Sullivan, a Kentucky-based artist who designed this year’s bottle, says all you need to get going is a small canvas, some acrylic paint (which is easier to work with than watercolors), a few brushes, and some water. Dynamic equestrian scenes can be tough for beginners, he says, so you may want to instead print off a simple picture of a horse to copy. “It’s a great way to get the whole family involved — especially kids,” Sullivan says.
Up the Ante
For those who don’t regularly follow horse racing, placing a wager adds interest to the race. But rather than pooling money in a hat, make bourbon the sweepstake prize at your party.
Before the event, select an expensive bottle you wouldn’t normally buy and divide the cost among everyone who wants to take part. Ideally, there should be an even number of contestants, as 20 horses will run the race. On Derby Day, each person picks their horse(s) at random from the hat, and the eventual winner takes home the bottle. If that’s you, be a good sport and share a taste with your fellow contestants before leaving.
Prepare for Next Year’s Derby
Before the day is out, start preparations for next year’s Derby by batching an infused Mint Julep. “It’s the best Mint Julep you’ll ever drink,” Ouita says. All you need are a few bunches of mint and a full bottle of bourbon, she explains. Pour the bourbon out of the bottle and reserve it in a pitcher. Pack the bottle full of mint — sprigs and fresh leaves — and fill it with the reserved bourbon. Ensure the cap is tightly sealed and lay it down in a dark place until the following Derby. When the time comes to serve, you don’t need to add anything to the Julep. Just crush some ice and pour over the mint-infused bourbon.