Kentucky Derby Drink Ideas (Plus Some Food, Too!)

Eric Ginsburg

It's almost the first Saturday in May, which means it's time for the Kentucky Derby again! We're here to help you plan your party, including riffs on the classic Kentucky Derby drink — the mint julep — as well as ideas for appetizers, an entree, and desserts.

My best derby memory is also the most serendipitous. As a young journalist, I'd been covering a beer festival, and stopped into a nearby brewery afterwards with a friend to grab some food. Only then did we realize it was derby day, and between the fest and "the greatest two minutes in sports," the place was absolutely slammed.

Luckily, an older gent let us crash his booth, and he liked my gregarious friend so much he bought our dinner and drinks.

But since you can't orchestrate that kind of evening — it might happen, but you have better odds picking the winning race horse — we suggest you start planning your Kentucky Derby party now.

America's most popular horse race celebrates its 150th year this year. "The Running of the Roses" is always the first Saturday of May, which this year means May 4.

While you can tune in to the day's events starting at 2:30 p.m. on NBC or streaming on Peacock (according to USA Today), the actual marquee competition will happen just before 7 p.m. (officially, it's listed as 6:57 p.m.). 

In other words, start your party as early as you like, but you probably want all your guests to arrive by 6 p.m. at the latest, and we recommend a little earlier — with appetizers to keep them happy.

The Premier Kentucky Derby Drink: The Mint Julep

Most the details of your derby party are flexible, but people will expect two things above all else — the attire and the bourbon. More specifically, they'll want you to serve a mint julep.

The classic cocktail only has a few basic ingredients: bourbon, mint, and either simple syrup or sugar served over crushed ice. 

The type of bourbon used will vary, but by definition, the bourbon will be from Kentucky, and that's what matters.

(Kentucky is the bourbon capital of the world, specifically Bardstown, Ky., which is less than an hour's drive from Churchill Downs — home of the derby and standing in Louisville.)

Some people enjoy the commemorative Woodford Reserve Kentucky Derby 150 bourbon (or its even more top shelf counterpart sold in crystal), but we recommend something at a lower price point for mixed drinks like this.

Jim Beam and Evan Williams are popular choices, but Maker's Mark, Elijah Craig, Knob Creek, and Bulleit are all also solid options here.

Here, we've offered two variations on the straightforward julep (sometimes misspelled as "mint julip") — one with honey and another with strawberry and rhubarb. Depending on how traditional your guests are, they may expect the classic approach, so we recommend having two versions on hand.

You can certainly serve other bourbon drinks as well, including on its own. But unless this is a sober affair with mocktails, we implore you to include some type of julep for your guests. Otherwise, why are you throwing a party for a two-minute horse sprint anyway? 

By the way, variations like ours are perfectly kosher — there's a lemon twist julep recipe listed directly on the official Kentucky Derby website.

What is a Mint Julep Cup?

Mint juleps are traditionally served in a stainless steel julep cup, which is sometimes hammered on the exterior to give it a textured look.

These are easy enough to find online (and pretty affordable!), but you could also serve this Kentucky Derby drink in an old fashioned glass or a rocks glass.

Similar to the copper mug for a Moscow mule, the mint julep is traditionally served in this metal cup to keep it cold. Plus, it looks cool, and that doesn't hurt.

Speaking of Kentucky Derby glassware, I just have to share that while I've never been to the race myself (and honestly never will unless someone invites me for free — it's a little too upper-crust for me), I do have a Kentucky Derby shot glass. And it belonged to Maya Angelou. 

In her later years, she lived in Winston-Salem, North Carolina and taught at Wake Forest University. When she passed, I lived nearby and covered her estate sale for a local newspaper. After I finished my reporting, I bought a few keepsakes, and this was one of them. No clue if there's a good story behind it, but every time I fill the shot glass with some bourbon, I'll toast to Maya Angelou.


What to Serve at a Kentucky Derby Party

Okay, so some sort of mint julep is paramount (and our two recipes are below). But what else?

First, you're going to want some appetizers.

As we mentioned, the festivities start broadcasting hours before the showcase race. So you'll want some snacks on hand for when people arrive! 

We recommend starting with deviled eggs, an iconic Southern starter that can be prepared well in advance and pulled out of the fridge when the first guest arrives.

If you want something more substantial, we suggest these bourbon glazed chicken wings.

For your entree, stick with another classic, the Hot Brown. Popularized by the Brown Hotel in Louisville, the Hot Brown is an open-faced turkey burger sandwich. 

Despite the swanky outfits, a derby party is a more casual affair — not a formal sit-down dinner party — and as such, a burger is perfect. Or you could make these as sliders if you want to sub in another entree but maintain the nod to tradition.

You could try this whiskey mussels recipe, which calls for Irish whiskey but that you could try with bourbon instead. (Will your guests know the difference if you use Irish whiskey, though?)

Stick with the bourbon theme for dessert. You could opt for bourbon peach galettes, stone fruit cobbler with bourbon, or a blueberry bourbon buckle (think crumb cake).

But our top choices are below — for something heartier, go for the bourbon sweet potato bread pudding, or for a lighter and fruity option, choose the bourbon blackberry jam bars!

Here are the full recipes so you can pick your ideal Kentucky Derby drink and meal, whether you're enjoying a quiet evening at home watching horses run in a circle, hosting friends, or galloping off to a party.

1. Strawberry Rhubarb Julep Recipe

Strawberry Rhubarb Julep is the sweet Spring seasonal cocktail. So refreshing on a hot day!

2. Honey Whiskey Mint Julep Recipe

The Kentucky Derby is Saturday, so get out your fanciest hat and plan to make a Honey Whiskey Mint Julep to celebrate. It’s sweet, minty and ice cold for a hot day!

3. Herbed Deviled Eggs Recipe

Herbed deviled eggs make your celebration even more special. This is party food, friends.

4. Hot Brown Turkey Burger Recipe

Hot Brown Turkey Burger is great for grilling season. Enjoy this Kentucky Derby classic as a burger!

5. Bourbon Sweet Potato Bread Pudding Recipe

Bourbon Sweet Potato Bread Pudding is like eating sweet potato casserole in dessert form. The buttery pecans add a lovely crunch.

6. Bourbon Blackberry Jam Bars Recipe

These Bourbon Blackberry Jam Bars have a simple shortbread crust topped with a bourbon blackberry filling. Top with fresh blackberries for a delicious Kentucky Derby-themed dessert treat!

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