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Easy Entertaining: Kentucky Derby Party Tips

Kentucky Derby Party Tips on

Kentucky Derby

Derby Days! I am thrilled to be the celebrity chef at the Mansion at Churchill Downs for the 143rd running of the Kentucky Derby. Today, I want to share with you my Kentucky Derby Party Tips so that you can host your own celebration — without running yourself like a horse on the track!

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Easy Entertaining: My Kentucky Derby Party Tips

  • Entertaining should be relaxed and comfortable for both the hosts and the guests – and that comes with organization and planning ahead, from the guest list to the music to the menu — and everything in between.
  • Always start a party with a clean dishwasher, empty trash cans and recycling bins, and a spotlessly clean kitchen.
  • Set your buffet with empty serving platters and bowls and mark the locations with sticky notes. This serves several functions: you know that the serving pieces will fit and how many you need for your menu. And, best of all, when someone asks, “May I help you?” you can smile and say, “Would you please put this on the table where the note is?
  • Be realistic and give yourself permission to outsource. If you don’t have time to make everything from scratch consider swapping out some dishes for ready-made nibbles from your local market.
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What are some simple décor tips for the at-home party planner to evoke the spirit of Kentucky Derby?

  • The Kentucky Derby is also known as “The Run for the Roses” in honor of the roses draped upon the winning horse and small bouquets of roses would be both beautiful and appropriate. (Psst — You don’t have to buy super expensive long-stem red roses; Costco and other big box stores offer fairly inexpensive bouquets.)
  • Stop by the fabric store and buy a couple of yards of seersucker that can be used as an accent piece, tablecloth, table runner, or even cut into cocktail napkins.
  • You can break out the china and silver if you wish, but remember that Kentucky Derby parties don’t have to be fancy. They can be a casual outdoor event or a tailgate. Place the utensils in Mason Jars; use galvanized buckets for the drinks, and enamelware for the serving pieces. Place a few bales of hay for guests to sit and set up a game of horseshoes in the yard.
  • It’s all about the hat! Have a hat competition: the most elegant to the most outrageous.
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 What are a few simple ideas to make your party essentially Southern, including recipes or ingredients? 

  • Bourbon will lead the way with my Pork Chops with Peach BBQ Sauce — and the Mint Juleps, of course.
  • Instead of the traditional Fried Chicken, serve my crispy Oven Fried Chicken on a Stick for easier clean-up.
  • The “Pate of the South” Pimiento Cheese is huge crowd-pleaser and can be served on celery sticks, cucumber slices, and radishes.
  • Every party buffet needs vegetables and my easy-to-prepare Sassy Slaw is good and good for you.
  • Decorate the table with magnolia leaves or sprigs of winding ivy between the serving dishes.
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What Kentucky Derby Party Tips do you have for someone on a budget?

  • The most important thing is to try to anticipate the party budget from the beginning because if the host is stressed about spending too much money, then no one will have a good time.
  • Alcohol is the most expensive party element. Instead of offering a full bar, limit the choices. Anticipate 1 drink per hour for most imbibing adults. Each Mint Julep contains 2 ounces of alcohol so you can do the math. You don’t want to run out and you also don’t want to overbuy.
  • Have a Kentucky Derby Potluck: Ask your guests ahead of time what they are going to bring or gently guide them so you don’t wind up with 3 of the same dish. Or, treat it like a recipe exchange and ask everyone to send you the recipe ahead of time. Download a Derby-themed template with a horseshoe or a horse and print copies for everyone to take home.
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What are the perfect Southern drinks (alcoholic and non) to serve besides the mint julep?

Pitchers of Iced Tea and Homemade Lemonade are always welcome at an afternoon party and guests can also make the classic Arnold Palmer, an equal blend of tea and lemonade. (For those that are interested in something a bit harder, but not a Mint Julep, then they can add a shot of chilled vodka for a cocktail known as an Ice Pick.) Serve unsweetened tea and provide a small carafe of simple syrup so guests can sweeten to taste. Must-have garnishes include mint and lemon wedges. It’s always good to have plenty of water and sparkling water available. On that note, Check out this piece on for Family Friendly Kentucky Derby Party Tips.

Lastly, make sure to follow me on Instagram for behind-the-scenes pix of my take on The Most Exciting Two Minutes In Sports!” 

Bon Appétit Y’all!

Virginia Willis

Kentucky Derby Party Tips on

Woodford Reserve Classic Mint Julep

Cuisine American, Southern
Prep Time 5 minutes
5 minutes
Servings 1


  • 2 oz Woodford Reserve®
  • 1/2 oz Simple Syrup
  • 3 Fresh Mint Leaves
  • Crushed Ice


  1. Express the essential oils in the mint and rub them inside the glass. To the same glass, add simple syrup, bourbon and crushed ice. Stir. 

  2. Garnish with more ice and fresh mint.


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Copyright © 2017 Virginia Willis Culinary Enterprises, Inc.

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