How to Throw a Kentucky Derby Party: A Kentuckian's Tips

It’s called the most exciting two minutes in sports. It’s also a great excuse to throw a super-chic party. Of course, it is the Kentucky Derby, the horse race held annually in Louisville, Kentucky, on the first Saturday in May. To inspire your Derby-party planning, we turned to Jon Carloftis, a 10th generation Kentuckian, two-time Salonniere 100 honoree, and one of the country’s most creative “Run for the Roses” party hosts. Following are Jon’s top tips for throwing a Kentucky Derby party just like the ones they host in Louisville.

Let’s start with the guest list. Any thoughts on the perfect Kentucky Derby party guest list?

You’ve got to invite nice, interesting people of all ages and from all walks of life—for example, an incredible 90-year-old, a group of teenagers (no drinking, of course!), a horse-farm owner, a farm worker, a billionaire, maybe even a stripper. You want people who know how to get—and keep—a party going. If it’s warm out, make sure to invite the person who’s going to jump into the pool!

How to Throw a Kentucky Derby Party: A Kentuckian's Tips

I’m assuming you recommend serving mint juleps?

You have to serve mint juleps at a Kentucky Derby party. But argh, I’ve had so many bad ones that it’s a pleasure to share how to make a good one. Make the simple syrup ahead of time using pure cane sugar and Kentucky Colonel Mint, which has huge leaves and the perfect flavor. Sometimes I’ll even add some fresh ginger to the syrup since I’m a fiend for ginger. Put the mixture in an old glass decanter and keep it in the fridge until you’re ready to mix your drinks. Take freshly made ice (it makes a huge difference!), place it in a bag, and use a hammer to crush it. Then, pack a silver mint julep cup to the top with the crushed ice, and pour in a jigger or two of Maker’s Mark bourbon (it’s the best!) and half an ounce of simple syrup. Serve it with a sprig of mint and a pretty cloth napkin, and you’ll be a winner, no matter which horse you bet on.

How to Throw a Kentucky Derby Party: A Kentuckian's Tips

What foods do you recommend serving at a Derby party?

For a traditional menu, serve cashews or pecans glazed with brown sugar and tossed in hot pepper; thinly sliced country ham; tiny beaten biscuits; fresh collard greens with bacon; peas; and fried chicken. For dessert, serve Derby Pie—a chocolate and walnut tart, or make your own and add in a little bourbon.

How to Throw a Kentucky Derby Party: A Kentuckian's Tips

What do you recommend for tabletop décor? 

Use English antique plates, Hermès flatware, Lalique stemware, and CB2 water glasses, which look so fragile and expensive but cost about $3 each. Lexington Silver Stirrup Cups are perfect for serving dessert or a really good bourbon after dinner. Sferra linen napkins in deep or acid green, deep or sky blue, chocolate, or charcoal will add a pop of color, although when Momma, who is 90 and a grande dame, comes to my Kentucky Derby party, she likes white, so that’s exactly what this good son uses.

What’s your favorite Kentucky resource for buying tabletop items?

LV Harkness is where everyone in Kentucky shops for their Derby party essentials.

How to Throw a Kentucky Derby Party: A Kentuckian's Tips

Jon Carloftis and his partner Dale Fisher

What kinds of flowers do you recommend?

Use a combination of moss, horns, and the fresh flowers that are abloom in Kentucky right now, like dogwoods, tulips, late daffodils, and snowdrops, to name a few. Of course, since the Derby’s known as the “Run for the Roses”, red roses are fun too.

Léron linen napkins featuring embroidered “silks”

What about music? How do you balance playing background music with having the TV on for the race?

I usually start a Kentucky Derby party with Amy Winehouse Radio on our Sonos system, and I like to play it a little too loud at the beginning of the party just to get things going. Then, I switch to Al Green Radio or Aretha Franklin Radio because the older folks love it, and I like to educate the younger folks about the real deal: Motown. Have the TV on in the background without any sound, and about 30 minutes before the race, turn the volume on and the music off so people can start betting and talking like they know something about horses! Ask all your guests to bet $20 on one horse to win—it adds an element of fun. There are tons of horses in the Derby, so if nobody wins the pool, it can go to a good charity.

And here are a few more story topics you might enjoy: 

Classic and creative mint julep recipes

How Kentuckian Jon Carloftis entertains

The 100 best party hosts in America

Photo sources: Southern Living, One Kings Lane

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