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Ready for the Roses: A Few Tips for Your Kentucky Derby Party

Louisville chef Tim Laird offers sage advice on how to keep things running smoothly for the 145th Kentucky Derby.

photos: shutterstock


On May 4, 20 thoroughbred horses will burst out of the gates at Churchhill Downs for the running of the 145th Kentucky Derby. Although it’s primarily a sporting event, the derby has also been a place for society to gather and put Southern hospitality on display. The event conjures images of large pastel hats, linen suits, finger foods and, of course, many mint juleps, the classic cocktail of the Kentucky Derby.

Chef Tim Laird, who goes by the charming moniker of “America’s Chief Entertainment Officer,” has focused his career on the art of entertaining. His third book on the topic, “The Bourbon Country Cookbook: New Southern Entertaining,” came out in 2018 and focuses on southern recipes, many designed for Laird’s role as derby sponsor Woodford Reserve’s ambassador. For the last 12 years he has worked with Churchhill Downs on entertaining for the derby festivities. “The Kentucky Derby is really now a big social event. The race itself is only two minutes long so if you think about the majority of what people are doing, it’s really social,” says Laird.

Not everyone can make it down to Kentucky for race day but if you want to tap into that social vibe from home, here is a little advice from Laird on how to throw a fun and low-stress Derby party.


Prepare as much as possible in advance so you can enjoy your guests.
When the host is stressed out about a party, the guests can tell. “You as the host or hostess should have as much fun as your guests. People aren’t going to talk about what it is that your serving as much as what a good time they had,” says Laird.

Laird makes a shopping list of all the things that need to be done before the party and checks off as many as possible, often giving himself a full week ahead so nothing is rushed and he can relax.

Guests want to help, so let them!
Delegate, delegate, delegate! Being a good host doesn’t mean you have to do everything by yourself. “I’ve learned over time that people want to get involved so I’ll assign dishes to people and they get joy out of bringing it,” says Laird.

Have an excellent cocktail on hand, that can be delicious with or without alcohol.
Laird believes in a special cocktail for special occasions. In 2006, he created the Kentucky Oaks Lily specifically for the Kentucky Oaks race at Churchill Downs. This year, his signature drink is the Woodford Reserve Spire made with bourbon, lemonade, cranberry juice and crushed ice.

“Bourbon and horse racing have been tied together for a long time,” says Laird. “Especially in Kentucky, where you have 97 percent of all bourbons being made there.”

For guests who don’t drink alcohol, iced tea can be substituted for bourbon.

“It’s important to offer something and include everyone at a party. It’s nice to make something that looks just the same whether it has alcohol or not,” says Laird.

For smoother service, make batches beforehand. 
The cocktail will be sold at Churchill Downs during derby week:

  • 1.5 parts Woodford Reserve Bourbon*
  • 2 parts lemonade
  • 1 part cranberry juice
  • crushed ice
  • lemon twist for garnish

In a glass, mix bourbon, lemonade and cranberry juice with a bar spoon. Pour into a copper cup, add crushed ice and serve with a lemon twist.

*Ed. Note: While Woodford is the bourbon called for in this recipe, any high-quality bourbon will work.

If you’d rather skip hosting and go out, spiff yourself up for a drink at Derby parties at BURN or 412 Brewery the North Side. If you want racetrack trappings with your mint julep, you can make the trip to Meadows Casino in Washington for a viewing party on race day.

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