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How to Throw a Kentucky Derby Party

Love them or hate them, mint juleps are de rigueur for a Kentucky Derby party. <strong>Scroll down for recipes.</strong>
Jesse Baker, NPR
Love them or hate them, mint juleps are de rigueur for a Kentucky Derby party. Scroll down for recipes.

I grew up in Louisville, Ky., in the heart of horse country. But that doesn't mean I ever got to go to the racetrack.

It wasn't that my parents were against gambling, per se. My father has always been an extremely lucky gambler. His trips to the riverboat casinos have given a whole new meaning to all those "Gettin' Lucky in Kentucky" T-shirts. He once came home with $20,000 in cash, after just an hour playing the slots.

Surely some of that luck was hereditary, I'd argue. But no matter how often I made that case as a teenager, I never persuaded my parents to let me hit the horse races.

My mother insisted that the Kentucky Derby -- which is run each year at Churchill Downs during the first weekend in May -- was every bit as exciting from our living room. After all, we had a big-screen TV with surround sound. The way my father cranked the volume up, you could hear the announcer call the races from two houses over. And so, my memories of the Derby come from the parties my parents threw every year.

I have to admit, as an adult, I rather like that I have these traditions to share with my non-Kentucky-bred friends. Instead of making the trek from my home in Washington, D.C., to Louisville, I offer my friends a taste of the excitement they would have found at the Derby -- live and in person -- from my living room. And no Derby party is complete without two key ingredients: mint juleps and our family variation on a pie sold under the brand name "Derby-Pie®."

As any Louisvillian will tell you, "It ain't Derby without a mint julep." And yet, the same Louisvillians also will tell you that they won't touch the stuff the rest of the year. They prefer their bourbon straight up, without the syrupy, green sweetness that gives the drink its swampy, amber coloring. But even the bourbon purist won't pass up a mint julep on Derby Day.

The drink did exist before the race. Mint juleps probably were first served in the early 1700s in Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina. However, the first juleps weren't made with bourbon, but rum or rye whiskey. (Kentucky bourbon wasn’t commonly distributed until later in the 19th century.) Legend has it that mint was planted outside the clubhouse of Churchill Downs in 1875 so the drink could be served at the very first Kentucky Derby.

Now, the good people of Churchill Downs boast that julep slingers sell more than 120,000 of the minty mixed drink during Derby weekend. That's more than 10,000 bottles of bourbon, 1,000 pounds of fresh mint and 60,000 pounds of ice, all to celebrate a one-and-a-quarter-mile race that lasts less than two minutes.

Everybody drinks them, whether they're sitting in the swanky, star-studded stands of millionaire's row or wallowing in the muddy ruckus of the infield. The trick is to not fall for the prepackaged stuff, but to make your own "mint simple syrup" instead. This means dissolving two cups of sugar into two cups of boiling water, pouring the syrup into a bowl with mint sprigs and refrigerating it overnight. The whole process takes less than 10 minutes.

Bear in mind, the mint julep is something of an acquired taste. As well, just a little mistake along the way and you'll be sipping something closer to mint mouthwash than a mixed drink.

Something with less of an acquired taste -- and a shorter Derby history -- is something that many, perhaps improperly, call Derby pie. It was first served half a century ago in a small bed-and-breakfast in Prospect, Ky. The family members who ran the inn all had their own ideas about what to call the pie. So they did the only fair thing: They drew a name out of a hat. By 1968, Derby pie had become a smash hit at the Kentucky Derby -- and the name was registered with the U.S. Patent Office and the Commonwealth of Kentucky.

A Derby-Pie® is made with walnuts. My family makes a variation using pecans. The way we make them, they're essentially liquored-up, chocolate-pecan pies. You add bourbon right before baking, which gives the pie a little Kentucky kick. If you're pressed for time, you can always bake it the night before the party and warm it up just before serving. Unlike the annual symbolic sipping of the mint julep, Derby-Pie® and its variations have legions of devoted fans year-round.

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Jesse Baker