I can't claim to be from Kentucky or any state south of the Mason-Dixon (southern California doesn't count right?) but I've been to a few Derby parties in my day. I've worn a few wide-brimmed hats. So let's waste no time and start with mint juleps, the time-honored classic Derby drink...
Mint juleps look pretty innocuous: a clear liquid, some ice, some mint. But it should have a potent, horsepowered bourbon kick. The ice is going to melt—well, depending on how fast you drink it—and since nobody wants a sad, diluted julep, pick a high proof bourbon that's as close to 100 proof as you can get.
Our pal Meredith is the resident expert on Derby Day parties. She's hosted many over the years (including a special mashup party with Cinco de Mayo last year), so naturally she knows how to make a mean mint julep. As does cocktail whiz Michael Dietsch. And here are some protips form Brooklyn bartender Maxwell Britten who stresses the importance of treating the mint delicately, relying on mint oils rubbed on the julep cup rather than muddled mint to flavor the drink.
Connie's Beer Cheese
The race itself lasts two minutes (whooosh...and it's over, so that was fun!) but the party goes on, and you'll need some sustenance to keep standing under that heavy hat. Beer Cheese is a Derby party staple. Beer plus cheese, pretty straightforward.
"Whirled together into a spread with some garlic and hot stuff, typically accompanied by crackers or crudité," says Meredith. Best made the day before to let all those flavors mingle and get to know each other. Meredith's cousin Connie is a beer cheese expert, and this is her recipe.
Whiskey + wieners in a slow-cooker for six hours. Your room will start filling with a sweet whiskey aroma. Serve the little guys with toothpicks. Nothing else to it.
Kentucky Hot Browns
Despite prohibition, the chef at the Brown Hotel in Louisville in the 1920s knew where to find his whiskey. And that's probably why the Kentucky Hot Brown came about—he needed a restorative sandwich the next morning. The open-faced sandwich starts with a piece of toasted bread (the original recipe calls for Texas Toast) and gets topped with sliced, roasted turkey, and—this is critical—the creamy Mornay sauce poured over the whole thing, which then goes under the broiler to bake until bubbly.
Take the whopper of a sandwich out of the oven, throw on a couple slices of crispy bacon on top, and if you care to, tomatoes too.
Benedictine sandwiches and country ham biscuits are two more Derby Day classics. Again, I defer to Meredith:
"The pale green cucumber and cream cheese sandwich filling known throughout the Bluegrass State as Benedictine Spread...the resulting sandwiches are a Kentucky variant of the traditional British cucumber sandwich. Ultra thin sliced bread (like Pepperidge Farm Very Thin) is the only kind of bread to use when making this sandwich. Too much food coloring can make them look like they're stuffed with AstroTurf, so go easy with the green drops."
"Being flush with dozens of these little salty, pork-filled breads is reason enough to throw a party. Some populations like to serve pepper jelly on the side, but as a purist, I believe that cured ham and buttered biscuits are all you need. Ideally, quality country ham and White Lily flour would be universally available. If you are able to acquire a good country ham, then you can make Kenji's recipe and skip the glazing step."
And one more sandwich idea! It's a sandwich loaf—er, basically a sandwich cake. You start with a whole bread loaf then fill it with egg salad and cured black olives, butter and crisp radishes, smoked salmon and crème fraîche, capers, and dill.
Mostly Bourbon-Centric Desserts
Because, yes you can eat bourbon.