How to throw a Kentucky Derby party | CNN Underscored (2024)

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By Johnny Motley, CNN Underscored

3 minute read

Published 4:44 PM EDT, Mon April 29, 2024

What’s in this guide

  • When is the Kentucky Derby?
  • To drink and eat
  • Home
  • Derby dresses and outfits
  • Derby Hats
  • Horse betting
How to throw a Kentucky Derby party | CNN Underscored (1)

Don your seersucker, stir up the mint juleps and place your bets — we’re celebrating the Kentucky Derby at home. A venerated Southern tradition since 1875, The Kentucky Derby, which takes place each May, is maybe the most exciting two minutes in sports — not to mention the glitterati and equestrians it beckons to Louisville from across the globe.

When is the Kentucky Derby?

The Kentucky Derby, which will be celebrating its 150th anniversary on May 4, is a sublime showcase of equine power and human skill, but even those uninterested in horse racing can relish the pageantry, tradition and flair of the Bluegrass State’s annual extravaganza. The official post time of the Kentucky Derby is 6:57 p.m. EDT, though there will be a total of 14 races you can enjoy starting at 10:30 a.m.

And though most of us won’t join in the revelry at Churchill Downs, you can still appreciate these races in all their bourbon- and adrenaline-drenched glory. Just pick a horse and pour a drink. Ahead are some hosting essentials for throwing a Kentucky Derby party as exciting as those in Millionaire’s Row right before the starter pistol sounds.

To drink and eat


Kentucky has bestowed many precious gifts on civilization — the Colonel’s fried chicken, bluegrass music, the poetry of Wendell Berry — but none so universally beloved as that caramel-colored ambrosia known as bourbon. While the most famous bourbons — the likes of Pappy Van Winkle, Basil Hayden or Blanton’s — are from Kentucky, you can find exquisite bourbons, often at more budget-friendly prices, from states as varied as Texas, Wyomingand even New York. Here are a few of our favorites for sipping on Derby day.

Distilled in Versailles, Kentucky, Woodford Reserve is synonymous with superb bourbon at an affordable price. The distillery, opened in 1812, is on the registry of National Historic Landmarks. Woodford Reserve crafts a range of styles, but the Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, Woodford Reserve’s flagship offering, promises the best value for Derby co*cktails like mint juleps or grapefruit old-fashioneds. Woodford Reserve’s Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, as seductively aromatic as molten caramel, exemplifies classic bourbon flavors like toffee, vanilla and baking spice. For those keen on diving deeper into the enticing universe of bourbon, this pour is a great place to start.

Woodford Reserve, long a stalwart sponsor of the Derby, recently released a batch in honor of the world’s most famous horse race. With a label featuring a watercolor painting of a horse and rider on the Churchill Downs racetrack, Woodford Reserve 2024 Kentucky Derby 150 is even richer than the Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey. The Derby edition, sparkling with cherry and licorice overtones, makes an excellent base for a mint julep, Brown Derby or other bourbon-based co*cktails. It’s equally worthy of sipping neat or on the rocks. Plus, you can save the bottle as a souvenir.

Like port or Sauternes, the Woodford Reserve Double-Oaked Bourbon pairs sumptuously with desserts. The winner of the Double Gold Prize at the San Francisco Spirits Competition, Woodford Reserve Double-Oaked is aged twice in separate new American oak casks. The whiskey’s deep mahogany hue hints at the barrel flavors of vanilla, brown sugar and dried fruit awaiting the palate. Pair this decadent dram with Southern desserts like bourbon-infused bread pudding or a slice of Derby pie, an open-faced chocolate and pecan custard. Or in the spirit of Southern hospitality, you can send your guests home with a memento from the party. Try Woodford Reserve mini bottles, available in packs of 12.

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The beauty of Four Roses Bourbon, a distillery based in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, is that pours are complex enough to delight connoisseurs yet approachable enough for entry-level bourbon drinkers. Aged in charred, new American oak barrels for five years, it features vanilla and caramel flavors accented with red apple and pear — imagine a caramel-dipped honeycrisp at the Kentucky State Fair. This Four Roses bourbon, with its smooth mouthfeel and drawn-out finish, is an excellent sipping whiskey. The fruit flavors shine in lighter libations like whiskey highballs — a quick-and-easy co*cktail of bourbon, soda water, ice and a citrus garnish.

In recent years, Texas has evolved into a heavy hitter on the bourbon scene. While everything is usually bigger in Texas, the price tags of exceptional Texan bourbons are a felicitous exception to this rule. Still Austin, a distillery based in the Texas capital, crafts bourbons with grains grown in the Lone Star State, a mash bill yielding different flavors than cooler-climate Kentucky grains. Look for tropical flavors like pineapple and coconut, reminiscent of aged rums like Mount Gay Black Barrel or Zacapa 23. Still Austin bourbon lingers long on the palate, the initial ripe fruit flavors followed by a parade of cinnamon, vanilla and caramel.

Like Kentucky, the Cowboy State boasts an admirable penchant for elite horsemanship and fine whiskey. Wyoming Whiskey Small Batch Bourbon Whiskey highlights the archetypical flavors of masterfully crafted bourbon — vanilla, caramel and nutmeg. Unorthodox notes like hay and burned wood likewise tantalize the palate. The soft smokiness of this whiskey makes it an excellent choice for stirred co*cktails like old-fashioned or Manhattans. The bold flavors also complement the menthol freshness of a mint julep or the citrusy zip of a grapefruit old-fashioned.

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Southern cuisine

Kickstart your Derby merry-making with a Kentucky Derby Party Kit from Goldbelly. The kits, which are an easy way to feed eight to 10 guests, include Southern-style candies and bar snacks, Woodford Reserve mint-infused simple syrup and Derby-themed glassware and shot glasses. The modjeskas, caramel-coated marshmallows iconic of Kentucky, come from Bauer’s — a renowned confectioner in Lawrenceburg and the hometown of the Four Roses distillery. As a festive bonus, kits even include a horse figurine to adorn your bar table.

Want to serve up some hearty Southern cuisine? The fabulous fried chicken from Miami’s famed Yardbird is brined for over 24 hours and comes ready to pop in the oven for a crispy flavor bomb. Plus, it comes with all the fixins, including honey hot sauce, mac and cheese, and buttermilk biscuits with honey butter and apple jam.

Known for her southern hospitality, Caroline Ragsdale Reutter and her South Carolina BBQ joint (now run by her son) are famous for the zesty kick of this addictive spreadable cheese — crafted from sharp cheddar, mayo and chunks of red pimento. You’ll get two 16-ounce resealable containers in the pack, but our bet? It won’t last through the races.


Temperatures ratchet up in Kentucky around Derby season, and Derby co*cktails should be light and refreshing. We like to pre-batch a co*cktail called the Woodford Porch Swing — a quick blend of bourbon, honey, peach tea and lemon juice — which is perfect for a crowd. Want to experiment with lesser-known Derby co*cktails? Try a Preakness, which is simply a riff on a Manhattan with a splash of Bénédictine liqueur and a lemon twist, or a southern play on the Cosmopolitan, the vodka-based Oaks Lily.


The Derby’s signature co*cktail is the mint julep, a refreshing elixir of muddled mint leaves, simple syrup, bourbon and crushed ice. Traditionally, metal cups are the drinking vessel of choice for this heat-banishing libation.

These Flavourd Mint Julep Cups, made of dishwasher-safe polished stainless steel. The set includes metal straws too, a boon to avoid getting crushed mint leaves in your teeth. Stainless steel keeps beverages chilled more efficiently than glass, and when Derby season concludes, use the metallic cups for mojitos, margaritas or Moscow mules.

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Consider a professional co*cktail shaker set to make bartender-worthy Derby sippers. The Kitessensu co*cktail set has every tool an at-home mixologist needs — a stainless steel shaker, a strainer, measuring glasses and a muddler. The set also includes a comely wooden holder to organize tools and a handy booklet on classic co*cktail recipes.

co*cktail accoutrements

You can whip up simple syrup in your kitchen or add infused syrups to your co*cktails for more complexity. Woodford Reserve’s mint-infused syrup makes bourbon co*cktails sing like the crowd at Churchill Downs when the band plays “My Old Kentucky Home.” The syrup is an exquisite sweetener for mint juleps, mojitos, cucumber punch, caipirinhas or other warm-weather co*cktails.

As with the Kentucky icon’s coveted whiskeys, Pappy Van Winkle’s Bourbon Barrel-Aged Pure Maple Syrup ages in American oak barrels for 10 to 20 years. The barrel-aging concentrates the maple syrup’s sugars and imbues it with flavors like vanilla, toffee and stewed fruit. The syrup, the same rich amber color as Pappy Van Winkle 15-Year, is a match made in heaven with any bourbon co*cktail, particularly old-fashioneds or whiskey sours.

Derby dresses and outfits

Boater hats. Fascinators. Pastel-colored dresses. Jaunty bow ties. Channel your inner Southern belle or gentleman and dress to the nines for your upcoming Derby party. Derby-goers traditionally wear seersucker or linen, lightweight fabrics designed for breathability and keeping cool. Spring colors like light green, pink and baby blue as well as motifs like floral patterns are standard Derby sartorial fare. And though you may not be attending the event, the idea is to wear clothing that will still look good after hours baking in the sun.

Men’s derby fashion

No attire announces Derby season like seersucker, a ruffled, lightweight fabric typically made from cotton or silk. Seersucker blazers are thin and highly breathable, and the fabric’s subtle grooves add eye-catching texture to outfits. Seersucker blazers traditionally come in patterns of blue-and-white stripes, but green and pink are also common. Seersucker blazers look sharp paired with khakis, and wearers often add a playful pocket square for extra panache.

This light-colored linen-blend blazer from good ole Old Navy, also available in an olive green color, keep wearers looking as debonair as Tom Wolfe, writer and Southern bon vivant. The inner pockets conveniently hold Derby essentials like cigars, sunglasses or flasks.

You’ll never go astray with a handsome white button-down, the most versatile workhorse of the male wardrobe. And J.Crew has a simple, low-cost, solid white button-down made from lightweight, wrinkle-free fabric that pairs elegantly with khakis or seersucker pants. Like a guayabera, a tropic shirt that’s well-suited for formal and casual occasions, you can pair this staple easily with a blazer.

The finishing flourish for any masculine Derby outfit is a rakish bow tie (we like ’em pre-tied and adjustable, thank you very much). And this fun, horse-patterned neckwear is guaranteed to turn heads and garner compliments at Derby parties and beyond. Want to go in a different direction? You can choose from 38 different colors or patterns.

Women’s derby fashion

Lilly Pulitzer has been the belle of the ball in Southern circles for decades. And a floral-patterned jacquard dress with a well-placed bow is worthy of Scarlett O’Hara’s springtime wardrobe. Beyond Derby parties, the dress is a showstopper at barbecues, outdoor weddings or springtime galas — and even has discreet side pockets for toting makeup, betting cards or a cell phone.

One of our editor’s favorite spring dresses, this festive, lightweight wrap dress is pretty and affordable. It’s also comfy enough to wear all day and fits most heights and body types.

Derby Hats

Pair your sherbet-colored dress with a Derby fascinator, a headband tied with flowing bows reminiscent of the glamorous hats traditionally worn by Southern belles at the races. As the name implies, this headwear is indeed a fascinating crowning touch to any Derby outfit.

With a nice wide brim and a collection of bows and ruffles, this hat gives just enough flair for a day at the races.

This elegant straw hat is made in Italy and adorned with navy and red ribbon. Plus, it comes in four different sizes for all types of noggins.

This eco-friendly Litestraw hat is made of 100% paper, but also happens to be water and even sweat resistant — with a sweatband built into the inside of the brim. Well, I nevah.

Horse betting

Heighten the excitement of the races with a little light-hearted betting. While the main race at the Kentucky Derby, the Run for the Roses, only lasts two minutes, smaller races take place all day at Churchill Downs, offering your guests multiple chances to place wagers. Betting cards, informational packets on the horses, jockeys and odds are a fun way to learn about equestrian culture and place more informed bets.

This bold set includes 50 cards to let your guests place their bets, as well as a Kentucky Derby theme card to put out as a festive decoration.

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How to throw a Kentucky Derby party | CNN Underscored (2024)


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