The best way to celebrate Derby is in Louisville itself. However, if like me you find yourself far from the homestead come Derby Day, the second best thing is to throw a big, fabulous shindig yourself and show them Yankees (or Californians or Parisians or whatever) how it’s done.
The last time I was home for Derby was in high school, so the past seven years have seen all manner of celebrations, some more elaborate than others. I’ve watched the race on a laptop in my dorm room or sitting on the floor outside a recording booth. I’ve watched it huddled in the corner of a Paris apartment while everyone else did tequila shots. But for the past four years, I’ve thrown a party, bringing the Twin Spires to me since I can’t get to them. These are my tips, gleaned from years of experience in multiple states (and countries) as I spread the Derby love and turned my various apartments into corners of the Bluegrass, at least for that first magical Saturday in May.
First things first, you need to set the mood. Ideally, a Derby party should be thrown outside, for maximum sunshine and the closest approximation of the Churchill Downs experience. But should rain or lack of yard space keep you indoors, there are still easy ways to liven up your living space in Derby spirit.
No party would be complete without roses, the official flower of Derby. You can splurge for the real deal if you’re feeling fancy, or make your own if you’d rather spend your hard-earned cash on more important things. Namely bourbon.
These jockey silks printouts are cute and easy. If you print extras and your guests are crafty, you can even have them decorate their own. (I suggest using cardstock if you can, so they’ll hold up better.)
Derby for me is the quintessence of spring, so anything bright and blooming will suit the occasion. A pennant banner is easy and whimsical, and can totally be used even post-party. And if you’re feeling really lazy, grab some bright balloons, stick some flowers in some mason jars, and you are all set.
To fully set the mood, you need some tunes. Luckily for you, we’ve done your homework already with our April playlist.
In need of more Derby-tastic music? For a classic feel, you can go old school with Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, or Del McCoury. For a more modern twist, try The Avett Brothers, Houndmouth, or Old Crow Medicine Show. I’m also a big fan of the whole Pickin’ On “Bluegrass Tribute to The Shins” album, for a little something unexpected, or Lake Street Dive, for a retro feel.
No Southern occasion is complete without food, and lots of it. Derby in particular is a long haul — a marathon of a day — and you are going to need sustenance. My Derby party menu is all about Kentucky favorites, made bite-sized for your snacking pleasure.
First, nothing says Kentucky like Fried Chicken, but you don’t want to spend all day over a vat of hot oil (cue the Visigoths jokes), so go oven fried instead.
Next up, a Kentucky delicacy so simple and delicious, and yet completely unknown outside the Bluegrass State. Meet benedictine. Serve with crackers or in tea sandwich form because you’re classy as shit.
Another Louisville staple that is so goddamn delicious I do not understand how it has yet to sweep the nation — it’s the Hot Brown, miniature size! (Pro tip: If, like the average human, you do not have a pastry bag, you can make your own by snipping the corner off a large ziploc bag.)
And of course, you can’t forget about dessert! And really, on Derby, there is only one option: Chocolate Pecan Bourbon Pie. I like to make mine mini-size for parties; just use a rocks glass to cut small circles of pie crust, and then use them to line the cups of a muffin tin. Presto, baby pies! Check back Wednesday for my recipe.
Now to the serious business. In order to truly celebrate Derby, you must have drinks. Namely, bourbon. Straight up, on the rocks, with water, or as a julep — pick your method, but the poison must be whiskey.
Check out Scout’s Derby Cocktail Guide for some delicious ways to get bourbon in your belly, and even a few non-bourbon options (sacrilege, we know, but variety is the spice of life, yes?).
Between the eating, the drinking, and the watching of the actual race, you’ve got yourself a party right there. But should you find yourself in need of activities (it is a long day, after all, and the fastest two minutes in sports leaves several hours to be filled with other pastimes), here are some ideas.
- Pin the jockey on the race horse.
- Best-dressed (and by dressed, we mean hatted) contest.
- Cornhole, official pastime of the bros of the South.
- Horseshoes, official pastime of the old bros of the South.
- Derby-themed photo booth (you can purchase prop sets, or make your own).
- Sing-along of “My Old Kentucky Home.”
- Have jars set up for every horse running in this year’s race, and a hat for bets. People can place a dollar in the hat and their name in a jar for every horse they want to bet on (it helps to have a guide handy, should the eminent Jill Byrne not be present at your Derby celebration). The pot gets split among the folks who picked the winning horse. Or you can simplify matters by writing the numbers 1-26 on slips of paper and having people draw at random; then, whichever horse wins gets the whole kit(ty) and caboodle.
And then, at 6:23 p.m., watch the race. Whether you’re there in person, surrounded by friends, or alone with your laptop, for those two minutes, the old Kentucky home doesn’t seem so far away.