Derby Traditions : Official Travel Source

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Derby Traditions

There are five seasons in Kentucky. Summer, Fall, Winter, Spring and DERBY!

Louisville and all of Kentucky have rich traditions that have developed over time to celebrate the annual running of America’s longest held sporting event, the Kentucky Derby. First run in 1875, you can imagine how many unique customs have developed over time to honor the culture of this prestigious event. Beyond the fashion of hats, fascinators, bow ties and spring finery at its best, two other pillars of Kentucky culture shine their brightest during Derby season – Bourbon and the state’s culinary traditions.

Follow along with Bourbon & Biscuits for some of the most time-honored ways that Kentuckians celebrate Derby season either at the track or at home.

Mint Juleps

The mixture of four simple ingredients (Bourbon, mint, sugar and water) has been a first-Saturday-in-May tradition since 1938. More than 120,000 mint juleps are served every year at Churchill Downs alone during the weekend of the Run for the Roses. Louisville perfects their favorite recipes for all of April as Mint Julep Month has been an event since 2013.

1 ounce mint simple syrup
2 ounces Bourbon
Fresh mint

Pack a julep cup – preferably silver or pewter – full of crushed ice. Strain in the mint simple syrup (not getting any of the mint leaf) and add the Bourbon. Grab a bunch of the fresh mint and “spank it” between your hands to release the essential oils. Garnish your julep with the mint.

Mint-infused Simple Syrup

1 ½ cups packed fresh mint leaves
1 cup sugar
1 cup water

Bring water to a boil and add sugar – stir to dissolve. Toss in your fresh mint and stir. Allow to cool and infuse the mint flavors before you add to your cocktail.

Pimento Cheese

A staple of the South in general, Pimento Cheese has long been a fixture on Louisville menus and every good Kentucky cook has their own version with slightly varied ingredients. The spread is most often served as a sandwich or on crackers, celery or chips, but for a Derby party display we like to serve alternating pimento cheese and Benedictine finger sandwiches on crustless white bread cut into triangles.

2 cups grated cheddar cheese
1 10-ounce tub of whipped cream cheese
1 4-ounce jar pimentos, chopped
1-4 tablespoons Frank’s Hot Sauce (personal to taste)

Mix together cheeses and hot sauce to taste. Gently fold in pimentos.


Miss Jennie Benedict invented her savory spread in a one-room kitchen in the family backyard in Louisville around the turn of the 20th century and now it's a state-wide tradition. You can find it at deli counters as a spread to take home or prepared as a sandwich – sometimes as a BBLT (Benedictine, Bacon, Lettuce & Tomato).

8 ounces of cream cheese softened
3 tablespoons cucumber juice
1 tablespoon onion juice
1 teaspoon salt
A few grains of cayenne pepper
2 drops green food coloring (optional)

To get the cucumber juice, peel and grate a cucumber. Then wrap with a clean dish towel and squeeze juice into a dish. Discard pulp. Do the same for the onion. Mix all ingredients with a fork until well blended. Add a couple drops of green food coloring to make it extra festive. This can be served as a dip or as the aforementioned finger sandwiches.

Mint Julep Kisses

These pastel meringues are an adorable, miniature treat for your Derby day dessert spread!

2 egg whites
½ cup sugar
1 drop green food coloring
1 drop crème de menthe extract (or peppermint)
6 oz. mini chocolate chips

Whip egg whites into stiff meringue. Slowly add sugar, then food coloring and extract.
Fold in chips. Pipe “chocolate kiss” shape swirls out of a pastry bag onto foil-lined cookie sheet.
Put into a pre-heated 325 degree oven. Immediately turn off oven and let sit overnight.
Makes 2 dozen.

Bourbon Balls

The bite-size sugary treat was created by Ruth Booe of the Rebecca Ruth Candy Co., in 1936, in Frankfort, the state capital. The story goes that the bourbon-filled chocolate balls were born as a result of a comment by the Kentucky governor, who remarked that there was no better taste than a bite of chocolate followed by a sip of bourbon. Today, several candy shops throughout the state have their own versions, made with many varieties of Bourbon. As well as there are as many different recipes as there are Kentucky families. A fun modern twist on these has them included in milk shakes for a fun boozy treat!

1 stick butter
1 1-pound box powdered sugar
1 cup chopped pecans + whole pecans for decorating
4 tablespoons Kentucky Bourbon
4 ounces semi-sweet chocolate
4 ounces bittersweet chocolate

One day ahead: Cream the butter and sugar. Add the chopped pecans, mixing well with a spatula. Add the bourbon and quickly shape into small balls. Refrigerate overnight.

Next day: Melt both the chocolates in a double boiler until the chocolate has a smooth consistency. Dip the chilled bourbon balls into the chocolate. Decorate each bourbon ball with one whole pecan on top. Place the candy on waxed paper in the refrigerator to harden.

View complete episodes of Bourbon & Biscuits and get more Kentucky cuisine and cocktail recipes at