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Kentucky Derby Traditions: Mint Julep and More

Women browse a display of wide-brimmed hats decorated with feathers and flowers.
Shopping for Derby hats in Louisville. Photo © LuAnn Snawder Photography, licensed Creative Commons Attribution No-Derivatives.

Map of Louisville, Kentucky
To fully partake in Derby, to completely understand what it is about a two-minute horse race that makes a city go mad, you have to do more than attend the Kentucky Derby and the many officially sanctioned Derby Festival events going on around town. You must also live, breathe, eat, and talk Derby for at least the two weeks leading up to it and the day itself (the first Saturday in May).

You must also plan in advance because it’s difficult to find accommodations around Louisville at Derby time or to get tickets to the Derby itself. For tickets, you could enter the lottery through the Churchill Downs website, shop around on StubHub or Craigslist, or just content yourself with general admission tickets to the infield that can be bought at the gate. For accommodations, start calling the hotels and bed-and-breakfasts as soon as you know you’re going, with your fingers crossed that a room is open. If not, keep calling back to check for cancellations. The other option, which is pricier but much easier, is to opt for a ticket package, such as that offered by Derby Experiences. They’ll set you up with tickets, a hotel room, and certain niceties, depending on what package you opt for. The earlier you plan, the more options you’ll have.

Regardless of where you stay or where you find yourself on Derby Day—Millionaires Row or the third turn of the infield—to truly immerse yourself in the Derby experience, add these traditional activities to your to-do list.

Kentucky Derby Traditions

  • Eat Derby Pie. Created by Kern’s Kitchen, the only company with the rights to the name, Derby Pie is a gooey confection of chocolate chips, walnuts, and other ingredients that Kern’s considers top secret. You can purchase an entire pie at locations around town or have a slice served to you at the Brown Hotel’s J. Graham’s Café. Other restaurants and bakeries serve up their own version of “Kentucky pie,” sometimes with a hint of bourbon, sometimes without.
  • Sip a mint julep. Although it’s just a simple mix of bourbon, mint, sugar, and water, it takes a good bartender to make a mint julep just right—not too sweet, not too minty, and with the proper amount of warmth from the bourbon. Seek out a good one at one of downtown’s bourbon bars. The official drink of the Kentucky Derby is served in an official keepsake glass at Churchill Downs, in an old-fashioned or highball glass at most bars, and in a silver julep cup at any proper Southern home.
  • Don a hat. The hats at the Kentucky Derby get almost as much attention as the horses, so make the right statement with a proper topper. Those with reserved seats should seek a look that is stylish and elegant. Decorated widebrimmed hats are most common. If you’re headed for the infield, the more ridiculous the hat, the more attention you’ll get. Let your imagination run wild.
  • Gawk at celebrities. Security isn’t going to let you anywhere near Millionaires Row on Derby Day, so to see your favorite celebrities, you have to join your fellow fans outside the home of Patricia Barnstable Brown on Derby Eve. The yearly themed gala, hosted by the former Doublemint Twin and with proceeds benefiting diabetes research, draws in big names from Hollywood, New York, and the sports world, many of whom happily chat with fans as they arrive.
  • See the garland of roses as it’s made. The evening before Derby at a local Kroger grocery store, dozens of employee volunteers sew together the blanket of more than 400 red roses that becomes the 40-pound garland of roses awarded to the winning Derby horse. A different Kroger is given the honor each year, but all of them welcome you to come and watch as this Derby icon is assembled.
  • Enjoy dawn at the Downs. Take your breakfast at a seat in Churchill Downs’s Millionaires Row while watching Derby and Oaks contenders work out during Derby week. You can enjoy the view from up high, then go trackside for a closer look. It’s a quiet, intimate experience far from the madness of Derby Day.

Excerpted from the Second Edition of Moon Kentucky.