Your guide to celebrating the Kentucky Derby safely with Southern flair

Never has there been a better time to celebrate the annual running of the Kentucky Derby at home than during a pandemic. Simple as that. With a bit of planning, you can make the day special, even while staying home.

“I really do think that even with fewer people at your Derby party, you can make it very nice … and a day that you will all be able to have fun,” said Peggy Noe Stevens, entertaining and etiquette professional.

The COVID-19 outbreak has taught us the importance of doing our part to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, so any at-home party should adhere to social distancing practices and everyone should wear a face mask. (After all, a face mask is the must-have accessory for Kentucky Derby 2021!)

But what if you aren’t quite sure how to pull off a party during a pandemic while following safety precautions? Stevens walked us through six simple adjustments to ensure the day is filled with fun, friendship and future memories.

So saddle up and let’s get planning.

Kentucky Derby party invitations

Which Fork Do I Use With My Bourbon? by Peggy Noe Stevens and Susan Reigler

Start by letting people know how you plan to spend the day. Even if you’re only going to celebrate with those in your household, it’s nice to plan ahead and make the day special.

“This year it’s important to let your guests know what to expect. How many people will attend, how long will the party last, will you serve food and drinks and how will food and beverages be served,” said Stevens. “It brings a comfort level to those who are worried about COVID-19.”

Be sure to include the Kentucky Derby attire for the day. Your party gives them a chance to dress their finest.

This is also the part where you remind anyone you’re hosting to wear a mask!

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Plan to be outdoors

Since this is the year when you’ll be social distancing, it’s easiest and safest to accomplish this outdoors. Plan ahead to set up your beverage and food on tables outside – whether it’s in the backyard on a patio or a deck, circulating outside air is best. You may need to encourage – and remind – your guests to be outside. It’s OK during a pandemic to come across as a little bossy on this matter.

A small tent that you can purchase or rent will provide shade if it’s sunny. But don’t put all your eggs in that basket. Be sure to have a safety plan in mind if the weather turns to rain. Seasoned Kentucky Derby fans know all too well that rain is always an option on race day.

A winning Kentucky Derby bar

Official Kentucky Derby glasses from a variety of years offer a smart way to help your guests keep track of their own glass when you throw a Kentucky Derby party during a pandemic.

Stevens, who is the world’s first female Master Bourbon Taster, co-authored “Which Fork Do I Use With My Bourbon,” (available locally at Carmichael’s Book Store) with Susan Reigler, a former restaurant critic for the USA TODAY Network’s Courier Journal and a correspondent for Bourbon+ and American Whiskey magazines. Together they lay out the tried and true entertaining options for a Kentucky Derby party that includes plenty of thoughts on cocktails.

So, it’s not just the traditional mint julep you’ll serve. If you really want to go for the “win,” Stevens says to include a variety of flavored juleps made with ingredients like strawberries, orange marmalade or peaches.

The “Dark and Bloody Mary” recipe also adds a spicey afternoon option to the bar and is a Kentucky Derby tradition Stevens enjoys whether she’s at home or the historic Churchill Downs racetrack.

The Bloody Mary cocktail is an afternoon tradition on Derby day. A nice drink to break up an afternoon of Mint Juleps.

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“It’s always nice to have something besides mint juleps to sip and enjoy during the afternoon on Derby day,” she said.

But whether it’s juleps, Bloody Marys or more “traditional” cocktails like Manhattans, the twist this year is that you’re best off if you make your cocktails in batches.

“I think there is a way to safely serve your food and drinks during a pandemic, the key is eliminating as many touch surfaces as possible,” said Stevens. “I suggest you premix drinks like your mint juleps into batches, which you will fill into large decanters.”

Your guests are still able to serve themselves but the pre-made drinks eliminate the number of bottles and glassware they touch throughout the day.

Speaking of glassware, Stevens will pull out her collection of Kentucky Derby glasses on Saturday and give each person their own Kentucky Derby year to reuse during the run of the party. If you don’t have an extensive collection like hers, you can make up your own labeling method to help people hold onto the same glass for the day.

In consideration of COVID-19, you could also fill glass jars with ice for each guest to pour into a glass before adding the pre-made cocktails.

The ultimate Southern food spread

Keep your Kentucky Derby party outdoors as much as possible during the Covid-19 outbreak.  Peggy Noe Stevens suggests you also have a plan for how you'll safely bring your party guests indoors if the weather turns to rain.  Always a possiblity on Derby Day.

Cheese grits, country ham sandwiches, beef tenderloin and corn pudding are Kentucky Derby Day staples that can be found in Stevens’ new cookbook.

“You know on Derby Day we graze like the horses when it comes to food,” said the author. “Or because you’ll be hosting a smaller number of guests, this could be the year you have a lovely sit-down meal.”

If you prefer a buffet-style setup, the key is to eliminate multiple people touching the utensils and food. As the host, you’ll step behind the buffet and serve each guest as they walk through the food line – six feet apart, of course.

Entertaining during a pandemic is safest when held outdoors. Peggy Noe Stevens mixed batches of cocktails to help avoid multiple people touching the same bottles and mixers to make individual drinks.

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You can further promote good hygiene by pre-plating crackers, and cheese onto individual plates before your guests arrive. This helps to avoid a multitude of hands reaching into serving baskets and food arrangements.

Another expert tip is a clever solution to pairing food and bourbon.

“I like to pre-plate appetizers and put the plate over a small pour of bourbon for each of my guests,” said Stevens. “This way they pick up their glass and their food at the same time.”

Decorating with Kentucky Derby pizzaz

A Southern hospitality inspired Kentucky Derby party can include Country Ham sandwiches, chocolate bourbon balls, fresh strawberries, Bennedictine dip, fresh mint, Bourbon and plenty of red roses for decoration.  Peggy Noe Stevens recommends using your best silver for displaying your food and drinks for an additional twist of Southern charm.

“I like to say garnish your front door just like you garnish your cocktails,” Stevens said.

Floral arrangements on your table can be as simple as filling empty bourbon bottles with flowers from your garden. If not much is in bloom in your garden pick up some at the florist or grocery store like hydrangeas, sunflowers and zinnias.

For a more elegant look, polished silver (real or faux) is a traditional accent for Kentucky Derby decorating. Of course, it is called “The Run for the Roses” and you will never go wrong with red roses on Kentucky Derby Day.

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Win, Place and Show your spirit with Derby activities

Tiz the Law and jockey Manuel Franco win the Grade 3 Holy Bull on Feb. 1 at Gulfstream Park.

Keep in mind you want to actually watch the Kentucky Derby on Saturday.

Before the call to the post, you might want to hand out a list of surprising Kentucky Derby facts to add to the fun. Throughout the day, keep the fun outdoors with stick horse races for the kids and games for adults like horseshoes, badminton or cornhole.

Who knows, the creativity you incorporate into your party during the COVID-19 outbreak could end up becoming traditions you’ll hold onto after this difficult time has faded into the past.

“Remember, just because you are having a small party doesn’t mean you can’t make it really nice,” Stevens said. “Even though you are having a party with fewer people, you can have a full Kentucky Derby party and have a lot of fun with it.”

Reach Kirby Adams at or Twitter @kirbylouisville. Support strong local journalism by subscribing today:

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