Kentucky Derby Guide: Entertaining & Hosting

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The Kentucky Derby:
Our Guide to Hosting & Entertaining with the traditions of Pappy Van Winkle

"Nana was the quintessential hostess. Her Derby brunch was legendary."

This quote from the pages of our aunt Sally's book, "But Always Fine Bourbon," sharing the history of our great-grandfather, is one that has forever set the stage for our understanding and appreciation of what it means to entertain.A Kentucky Derby brunch so legendary, it was featured in the 1937 "Life Goes to a Party" section of Life Magazine.  

It set the stage in our early minds, our imaginations swirling with the magical nostalgia and conjuring up what it would have been like to experience such an occasion. "William serving the famous mint juleps in frosty silver cups, the dining room table laden with the traditional Kentucky fare: scrambled eggs, buttered grits, and, of course beaten biscuits with country ham," these words evoking a sense of wonderment and awe and inviting us, early on, into the shared legacy of entertaining and splendor that our great-grandmother introduced. 

Ask anyone, and they will have a Kentucky Derby tale to share. That is part of the fun and the shared experience of enjoying a tradition 150 years in the making. From the early and legendary "Mint Julep Brunches" that became Pappy and Nana's epic Derby brunches, to the changing landscape of Churchill Downs, anyone who has ever been fortunate enough to attend the race itself, or a celebratory brunch, the stories are equally as fascinating.

Perhaps it's the story shared inThe New York Times, as recounted by our great-aunt Rip, of the infamous Derby weekend that  "Mother would get up real early in the morning and go out into the garden - in her kimono, barefooted - to cut flowers." On this particular Derby weekend in 1938, the house across the street was rented by a family from Kansas City with a horse in the Derby, so, as Rip continued, "Mother found a four-leaf clover in the grass" and she had it delivered "on a silver tray with a lace doily, a couple of mint juleps, and a note that said "Put this under your horse's saddle this afternoon and you'll win the Derby."

The horse was named Lawrin, the jockey, Eddie Arcaro, had never ridden a Derby winner before, and the handicappers had already ruled them out as a contender. However, as anyone who was smart enough to recognize that one should heed the advice of Nana, with the four leaf clover tucked under his saddle, Lawrin strode across the finish line a surprise Kentucky Derby winner, and as for that owner, he walked across the street and delivered that big horseshoe of red roses to "Mrs. Pappy Van Winkle."

Maybe now you can see how the traditions, the lore, the details, and have loomed ever so large in our collective understanding of what it means to entertain, and to enjoy, special traditions. Details matter, a sense of humor is necessary, and having fun with each moment is the underlying theme. 

The Kentucky Derby is a celebration. It is actually the conclusion of a months long celebration that takes hold of Louisville, Kentucky in early Spring and doesn't let go until the last ticket is cashed in at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May. Rife with traditions, from the singing of "My Old Kentucky Home" before the call to the post on Derby Day, to the lead up events of the Kentucky Derby Festival that offer multiple opportunities to get in on the Derby action. So if you are hosting or entertaining for the Kentucky Derby you simply must approach it with the infusion of fun and the appreciation of tradition. 

The name of the game with entertaining, is good food, good drinks and a good crowd. The things usually fretted about are not the details anyone leaves a party with. It is quite simply how they feel while they are there. A warm and inviting atmosphere is the first element, and that means including yourself in the action. 

When we hosted our own version of a legendary Van Winkle Derby party a few years ago (read the recap here) - we knew we wanted to create a colorful, welcoming, fun space where everyone was encouraged to gather, eat, drink and engage in general Derby merriment. While this was admittedly on a larger scale, you can pull off the same effect with just a little effort.

Food and Drinks (find that Derby Guide here)

People often get hung up on the details, while we find that those are the opportunities to have fun. Our entertaining and hosting rules are the same as they are for a simple Sunday dinner as for a large 200 person party. 

Mix and match. Don't be afraid to use what you have. Have fun with color. Get creative. Create opportunities for gathering. 

In fact, our love of entertaining is one of the reasons we started Pappy & Company ten years ago - to give ourselves and all of you the entertaining essentials you need to host and enjoy celebrations of all sizes. We've continued to add to our collection of Pappy Van Winkle Bourbon Barrel-Aged gourmet items specifically as we have seen the need in our own entertaining needs - to have a full collection that will deliver signature Pappy Van Winkle flavor (and make it easy). We use our Pappy Van Winkle Bourbon Barrel-Aged Pure Maple Syrup, Spicy Syrup and Pappy Van Winkle Bourbon Barrel-Aged Pepper Sauce in everything from easy appetizers, to craft cocktails and marinades. After all, entertaining should be fun! 

Find Pappy inspired and infused recipes 

Explore our Pappy Van Winkle Barrel-Aged Gourmet collection

Inspired by the stories of Pappy and Nana’s legendary Derby parties and festive Christmas decorations, and their signature mix of tradition with style, and classic with whimsy, we set out to create collections of modern, elevated entertaining essentials, with a nod to the timeless traditions, that are meant to be used and enjoyed. 

 In fact, our Everyday Heirlooms collection, in partnership with Thompson Traders, is perhaps the best example of blending modern aesthetic with classic tradition and craftsmanship. For us, entertaining has always been a time to bring out beloved family heirlooms - pieces often kept hidden away or tucked in a cabinet somewhere - and a party was never quite a party unless Pappy’s punchbowl was front and center. Whether with Nana’s egg-nog at Christmas or overflowing with flowers as a centerpiece on our Mom’s dining room table - it is a sign that a celebration is ready to begin. 

 Pappy’s iconic silver punchbowl has come to represent tradition and our heritage of hospitality. It served as the inspiration for our Everyday Heirlooms collection, where a modern replica, crafted in copper, is the literal centerpiece of our collection.  We imagine it full of champagne bottles for a spring brunch, a receptacle for a plant or seasonal flowers as a centerpiece, an actual punchbowl with a bright and retro punch recipe, or simply a beautiful display on an entry table. Versatility is key for us - creating items that can serve multiple purposes, yet designed with craftsmanship in mind, and beautiful enough to leave on display - are the cornerstones of our design process. 

Discover more about the inspiration and the heirloom quality pieces in our Everyday Heirlooms collection HERE. 

Entertaining - Tips & Tricks for A Kentucky Derby or Spring Celebration!

We follow a few unwritten rules. Use what you have, have fun with color and don't be afraid to mix and match. We love the idea of blending traditional heirloom pieces with more modern items (or even just paper napkins).

 The Bar: bar accessories, essentials and glassware 

 We love using classic family heirlooms so much - we encourage you to free them from cabinet purgatory and put them to use! So much so that we created our own versions of these traditional family pieces. Designed as modern reinventions of our classic family heirlooms - from Pappy’s inspired punchbowl to a Jigger modeled after our dad, Julian Van Winkle’s, and a sleek and sophisticated shaker for a fully stocked and ready bar.  

 Mint Julep glasses meet the Van Winkle Cup: these are a southern tradition - given and collected over years, we have received them as gifts for weddings, graduations and baby presents. The uses for these infinitely timeless cups are truly endless. We crafted our Everyday Essentials Van Winkle Cup in solid brass, as an elevated version that can be used with or in lieu of a traditional mint julep cup.  

 Obviously, use them for a cocktail, perhaps their namesake one at that. We also use them as vases for a variety of flowers. You can run them down the center of your table for a delightful buffet. Scatter them about the house for a spring pop of color. Add a few to your bar, even your bathroom. Use them as a vessel, to hold silverware (the real thing or not), or sprigs of mint for cocktails.

Hosting a Derby fete? Whether you are serving traditional Kentucky Derby cocktails such as the quintessential Mint Julep or creating a make your own Bloody Mary bar - we've got what you need!

Discover our signature Pappy & Company glassware for any occasion: 

Inspired by the glitz and glamour of the previous generation like we are - you're in luck - we have glassware with a nod of nostalgia and classic charm. We admittedly love things with retro design and inspiration, so we still think a punchbowl filled with a an old fashioned punch recipe (yes, even an ice ring!) are charming and fun. This can be an opportunity for a centerpiece or a gathering point for conversation!  

Try our signature Nick & Nora cocktail glasses our Signature Keys  Coupe set for a throwback vibe that will transport you back to the sophisticated elegance of Pappy's time. Of course you can never go wrong with a classic Tumbleror a variety of Old Fashioned Rocks Glasses for any preference of craft cocktail. Prefer unbreakable?  Depending on who your party guests are - we understand - which is why we have shatterproof Pappy Hour and Pappy Keys glasses for the kind of party that calls for them. Stack a sleeve of these on the bar and walk away!

Make a pitcher of pre-mixed easy cocktails for sharing - we recommend a Bloody Mary, a margarita, or even a simple craft cocktail like a Tequila Sour using our refreshingly and subtly sweet Kentucky Sour Mixer - with wildflower honey that has been slowly smoked over a retired Pappy Van Winkle barrel stave. Delicious versatility at it's best! 

Just make sure you pop a little note card indicating the ingredients (especially if your party will include young friends who may mistake a pitcher of Pappy Van Winkle Tequila Sours for refreshing lemonade)! 

Sure, having a bartender and a catered party is a really fun way to enjoy yourself - but it isn't always feasible, or even necessary. 

Set up a "make your own" bar complete with the ingredients you need to make a few signature cocktails:

What you need:

For Tequila Sours (or Whiskey Sours, or just a splash with vodka, this mixer plays nicely with any of your favorite spirits: Pappy Van Winkle Bourbon Barrel-Aged Kentucky Sour Mixer 

Margaritas and Spicy Margaritas: Pappy Van Winkle Bourbon Barrel-Aged Pure Maple Syrupand Spicy Maple Syrup

For Bloody Mary's: a splash of  Pappy Van Winkle Bourbon Barrel-Aged Pepper Sauce

For Old Fashioned's: Pappy Van Winkle Bourbon Barrel-Aged Old Fashioned Mixer and Orasella Maraschino Cherries (these also make a superb addition to a Tequila Sunrise with a splash of our Kentucky Sour Mixer). 

Sliced lemon and limes on our Pappy Van Winkle Bourbon Barrel Stave Cutting Board

Ice - feeling extra super fancy - surprise your guests with a perfect ice sphere using the Monogram Forge Ice Press

Otherwise, try one of our ice molds(especially ones that double as an ice bucket

Chilled wine or champagne: our Everyday Heirloom's collection's Big Van Cooler(a replica of Pappy's original Stanley cooler) can do that job (bonus alert - the liner can be removed to act as a wine bucker or a vase), or fill our Pappy Punchbowl with ice and your favorite bubbly. 

The Decor: Traditional nods to classic Kentucky traditions, lots of color and playful mix and matching!

For a festive Kentucky Derby inspired event - we'd use a mix of Mint Julep cups (and, if you have them, a collection of Kentucky Derby glasses. We have a collection of these - the glasses that are served at Churchill Downs with a Mint Julep and bearing the design of the Kentucky Derby poster for the specific year and the list of the Kentucky Derby winners along the back) for flowers. Run them down the center of your buffet table - feel free to mix and match. Scatter them about.  Flowers - can be as simple as seeing what is in bloom in your own garden or your neighbors. You can always supplement with a few bunches of spring time (and Derby classics) like tulips and cheerful ranunculus. Scattered throughout these make an impact without breaking the budget. 

You can even drop a planted plant in your punchbowl and surround it with some moss. Grab a few branches from your yard (or your neighbor's as long as they are invited too). 

We added new vases/candle holders this year - crafted from genuine, retired Pappy Van Winkle barrel staves - that add a simple, rustic yet sophisticated charm, and like most things - have the added versatility that we love. Use them as vases or candle holders for a mix of signature Pappy Van Winkle charm. 

Essentially - don't overthink it. The idea is to create a welcoming environment - not one so overdecorated that people can't relax and enjoy themselves. One of our favorite Derby traditions started when we were kids - all of the cousins and friends would be together as our parent's headed to Churchill Downs. We would put each Derby horse on a strip of paper and for $1 each - you could pull a name. Whoever pulled the winning horse won the pot - and for a little kid - $20 was very exciting! We still love this tradition - and encourage you to find fun ways to incorporate the excitement of the Derby race itself in your party. 

Of course, for us, whether we are hosting a large scale Kentucky Derby party or a backyard Sunday dinner - the most important element is the food! Whether you are hosting a sit down affair or a buffet style brunch - think about food that is easy to share and easy to eat in a crowd. Check out our guide to Kentucky Derby Menu here full of signature Pappy Van Winkle barrel-aged flavor and traditional Southern classics to celebrate!