I grew up with a very Southern MawMaw and a huge, party loving family, but somehow, I didn't even know about the Kentucky Derby until I was in middle school. When I was in 7th grade, I found out my boyfriend's family was having a Derby Brunch and I thought it was just the coolest thing ever. Who doesn't love a party that includes minty adult beverages and wild hats? The horses are cool and all, but I'm there for the Juleps, which means I can show you how to throw a Kentucky Derby party that will blow your friends' minds.
First things first: know the date. This year, the best two minutes in sports is on May 5, and the first race is around 10 a.m. Derby Day and subsequently, Derby parties, are an all-day affair, so you'll need plenty of supplies and even more bourbon. The basics are simple, but with a bit of tweaking, you can really throw your party over the top and you won't have to break the bank to do so. Luckily, there are also ways to incorporate all the kids you and your friends will be bringing along without it feeling like it's a "kids party." In fact, you can keep them happily occupied as you eat tea sandwiches and drink your PBR.
The name of the game for Derby decor is flowers. From the garland given to the winner to the centerpieces, florals are it on Derby Day. If you're having your party in your garden, this is really simple. However, if you're doing it in your home, you'll want to make sure you have plenty of fresh flowers for your event. The traditional flower is the red rose, which is thankfully also one of the cheapest. Red carnations and red peonies are also gorgeous.
You also want to make sure everyone has room to mingle and that they do mingle. Place the drinks apart from the food, and encourage movement.
If you want to go full Sandra Lee on your tablescape, consider buying miniature plastic horses for place settings, stainless buckets for flower bouquet centerpieces, and adding these cute, downloadable betting slips for everyone to fill out.
If you're losing your mind, consider a tablecloth of equestrian toile fabric to harken back to Southern summer parties. (If I had a dollar for all the yards of toile my MawMaw owned, I could buy a freaking horse.)
There is nothing that screams Derby Day quite so loudly as the flouncy, creative, enormous hats worn by the spectators. These couture creations can cost into the thousands, but there is no need to spend all that money. You can make your own derby hat for far less coin, and if you're feeling particularly friendly, have a pre-derby party get together wherein you can all make your hats in advance.
There is no derby without mint juleps. The quintessential drink of the race, it's essentially bourbon, sugar, mint, water, and ice. And don't forget the julep cups. This time of year, party supply stores everywhere have plastic, disposable versions available. The traditional stainless or copper versions are very expensive and need to be ordered well in advance.
While most are julep traditionalists, I make mine a little differently, and I think it is the superior julep.
Cat's Mint Julep
- 2 ounces Bourbon (Woodford Reserve is the official bourbon, but I prefer Wild Turkey)
- 2 ounces of very sweet mint tea (for a batch, 4 cups water, 4 black tea bags, 1/4 cup muddled mint, and 4 ounces of 2:1 simple syrup, the rind of one lime)
- 2 cups crushed ice
Put a scoop of the ice in the julep cup, pour in the liquids and stir vigorously. Top with more mint and a lime wheel. (Can also be made with vodka or rum)
Alternatively, Dark Horse Rose or PBR (in the can) are great options.
Obviously this is dependent upon your budget and location, but music is key to any good party. If you can have a band, that's awesome and a nice touch. Otherwise, just add a playlist to your Spotify or Pandora and keep it going.
One thing to make sure of? Keep "My Old Kentucky Home" at the ready for the winner's circle. Otherwise, everything from Janelle Monáe to Zac Brown is fair game.
The food is where I shine. You don't want heavy, full meals that make you want to laze about, but instead, go for light treats — just make sure you have plenty. The only "must serves" are Kentucky Derby pie and Kentucky Derby truffles. These chocolate and pecan delights should be served last, and with flair. It's the crown of the party. I'd serve them with coffee and tea.
Some ideas for canapes are bacon cheddar biscuits (It's Kentucky, they love their biscuits), crab cake sliders, pigs in a blanket, mini grilled cheese, cold chicken curry salad sliders on mini croissants, pakora fritters, and don't forget the kids. Mini muffins, mini PB&J sandwiches, and fried ravioli are all good choices.
For The Kids
This could be so much fun. Set up a sandbox in a plastic kiddie pool and fill it with the same mini horses you're using for place cards and let them "race". Set up a station where they can make a Derby garland out of paper or silk roses, too.
You can also buy hobby horses and have a race, awarding the garland to the winner. This is also fun with adults, not going to lie. You can also do a cupcake decoration table with different frostings and sprinkles.
Whatever you do, just remember, it's supposed to be fun. You don't even need to watch the races if you don't want to. Just have a good time with your friends and your kids without stressing yourself out. Because that defeats the purpose of a party, right?
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