Don’t have a ticket to Churchill Downs this weekend? Never fear — NYC-based party planners Julia Lake and Brita Olsen have stepped in to show us how to host a fantastic Kentucky Derby watching party, no travel necessary. With charming Southern details and a dedicated “gentlemen’s bar” this is one party the boys will love, too. So flip on the TV, put on your best hat and pour yourself a cold mint julep as these two show you how to celebrate “the most exciting two minutes in sports” in style:
photography by tory williams
What makes derby watching parties so much fun? What inspired you to create this party?
Brita: I always go to or throw a derby day party every year. I love the excuse to get all dolled up in the southern fashion and I cant resist a man in a seersucker suit. For me derby day is a nod to bygone era of glamour and daytime elegance that we just don’t get enough of these days. I love to go to the Belmont stakes here in New York and see everyone in their festive attire.
Julia: I’m a big equestrian and had lots of theme appropriate props to incorporate so when Brita had the idea, I knew I’d have the perfect props and design elements to contribute.
Where’s the best place to host a derby watching party?
Julia: In my dreamworld it’d be an old plantation house with a wrap around porch. The ladies would probably linger around the garden while the boys hang close to the TV.
Brita: Agreed. Whenever you can’t be physically at an event like this, I like to have the TV on but add a few themed elements that bring the excitement to the party: Perhaps a “make your own derby hat” station with straw hats and giant silk flowers and ribbon. Or get a fun trophy made so that guests win something if they pick the winning horse. You can get almost any trophy made and engraved at this great site called Trophy Depot. Really anything to up the stakes and keep the mood fun and festive!
We’re in love with the old ticket stubs. Where did you find them?
Brita: These vintage tickets are from real horse races in the 60’s and we loved how colorful they were! I bought a bunch via an etsy shop called Racing Totes. For any one who has ever been to race, you usually have tickets overflowing from every pocket when you leave at the end of the day. Or maybe I just have a gambling problem. Unfortunately they don’t make them nearly as colorful anymore so we loved scattering them around as decor. Phrases like “win” “place” “show” and “tricfecta” are big race terms and gave that derby day feel.
Tell us about the ladies’ bar.
Brita: We named this drink the “Rosa Hoots” because she was a female owner for a derby winning horse, and the name seemed appropriate for a flowery drink. Plus, its fun to say.
Rosa Hoots Cocktail Recipe
3 oz vodka
1 oz luxardo cherry syrup
3 oz soda water
Pour the cherry syrup in a glass, top with vodka then soda. Add a squeeze of fresh lemon garnish with a cherry and flowered ice cubes.
What would you instruct the guests to wear at a party like this?
Brita: I would call it “daytime elegance”. Hopefully that would inspire linen, plaids and florals and all that good stuff.
Julia: Garden party dresses and big, big hats! If the boys could arrive in daytime linen suits & driving moccasins, I’d be over the moon.
Any tips on serving mint juleps?
Brita: The julep is the official drink of the Kentucky derby. We make ours with a mint simple syrup which will ensure you will get that refreshing minty flavor in each sip. Add tons of crushed ice and don’t forget a hefty bouquet of mint leaves!
Julia: And don’t forget the julep cups –One King’s Lane has some on sale right now and they’re dishwasher safe which is a plus. Pop them in the freezer so they’re misty and crisp!
Julia and Brita’s Perfect Mint Julep Recipe:
3 oz of bourbon
1 oz mint simple syrup
1 bunch fresh mint
2 cups crushed ice
In a silver julep cup add simple syrup, then one cup of crushed ice. Add bourbon, a splash of water and top with remaining ice. Warm one bunch of fresh mint in your hands to release the oils and place in cup to garnish.
You created a separate “gentlemen’s bar” for the party — that’s a great idea to keep the decor from feeling too girly.
Brita: There is something so classic about a well stocked bar. Derby day has something for the gents — great bourbon cocktails and betting on the races, so we wanted them to feel at home with a masculine bar set up.
Any tips for stocking a more “manly” bar?
Brita: I always have sugar cubes on the bar for Old Fashioneds. The key is to drop the bitters directly on the cube and then muddle with orange slice to get it dissolved into the liquor.
And what if the ladies enjoy bourbon drinks as well?
Julia: Yes, the girls can make one, too! I’m a sucker for an Old Fashioned but always find them a bit too intense so I’ve developed a twist on the traditional recipe and call it the “Mrs. Lake”. You just add a splash seltzer and a dash of grenadine with extra muddled oranges to make it a girlier version of the old boy’s drink:
The Mrs. Lake
2 oz bourbon whiskey
2 dashes Angostura bitters
1 splash water
1 maraschino cherry
1 orange wedge
1 muddled orange wedge
A dash of grenadine
How should one approach decorating a buffet table? You found so many great themed objects for the shoot.
Julia: My favorite elements to incorporate are simply found objects from your own home (or your mother’s or grandmother’s…). It feels authentic. But if you need an excuse to gather fun props a little antiquing never hurt a girl! I find myself constantly collecting items for ‘one day’… Incorporating more than just food on a buffet table is terrific because you know you’ll have people’s attention. Its fun if the eye can jump from object to object around the table and constantly be surprised by a little eye candy — plus, they’re fun conversation starters.
Love the painting of the little boy! What’s the story on him?
Julia: I actually found him at a flea market outside of Munich. I think he’s fancy and thought he looked like a little horseback rider so I threw him in on the men’s bar.
The old horse medal is to die for.
Julia: I made it!
What! That’s incredible.
I had the silver horse emblem in my collection and affixed it to a ribbon that I already had. Tinsel Trading Company in NYC has treasures of the like — I often source other party decor from their little shop.
Julia, you and Brita now have a floral company together. Did you two do the flowers for this party?
Julia: We did! And yes, our company is called Idlewild. We do “Florals for the Wild at Heart” and travel anywhere. The flowers are ranunculus in different shades of pink, parrot tulips (the funky fringed edge hot pinks ones), hot pink garden roses, queen ann’s lace, white grape hyacinth. We got the vase at Jamali Garden in NYC but you can order their products online. They have extraordinary stuff!
The old champagne bucket is fabulous. How would champagne be used at the party? Perhaps to toast the winning bet?
Julia: Do we really need an excuse to drink champagne? I never entertain without it. EVER.
There’s just something so Southern about serving appetizers on silver. We like to call it “breaking out the good stuff” for a party. Brita, tell us about your derby day appetizers:
Brita: We call them “Pony Bites”
Top a Buttermilk cracker with fresh ricotta and ripe peach slices. Drizzle with honey and garnish with a fresh thyme spring. Season with sea salt.
What other silver elements did you use for the party?
Brita: Since mint juleps are customarily served in silver cups we wanted to highlight that tradition as much as possible. I love working with Julia because any time we came across something gold that we loved, we both knew immediately it wouldn’t work for this particular party. We don’t usually follow specific rules, but sometimes you know that even though something is beautiful it has to work for a particular aesthetic. I’m sure someone has used the phrase “get down and derby” before, but when I said it we both went a little nuts with how perfect it was.
Julia: All of the silver we used was from my collection and most was gifted from my mother over the years. She’s officially a silver hoarder and by extension, now so am I… I think building up your silver collection from a young age is important.
Spoken like a true Southerner! And how about those seersucker napkins? Too perfect for the theme.
Brita: I love shopping Food 52 Provisions. They have a well curated selection of stuff for your kitchen and seersucker seemed so springy and sweet as a napkin. The antique china is from my personal collection and I think colorful china elevates anything. I love any excuse to flaunt my collections and so does Julia!
Cheers to that! And thanks for sharing, ladies.