From Mint Juleps to Derby Pie: Exploring the Traditional Foods of the Kentucky Derby


The Kentucky Derby and equine businesses in Louisville produce four billion dollars annually for Kentucky. One of the world’s first horse races of its kind, the Kentucky Derby also attracts over one hundred and fifty thousand tourists to Louisville each May. One thing that keeps them coming back – the traditional foods of the Kentucky Derby.

The Louisville race is widely known and loved by prestigious horse racing enthusiasts who spend between $1,500.00 and $8,000.00 per person (or more!) on transportation, hotels, and tickets. In addition, people come from around the world to bet, drink, and eat the days away in their best Derby attire.  

What really attracts many attendees to the Kentucky Derby is its rich cultural atmosphere teeming with the sweet and savory traditions of the South. 

As with most highly-attended sporting events, the food and beverage menus offered to guests on race week must include some specific local favorites. Several foods are traditionally served at parties, events, and restaurants for the Kentucky Derby. 

We love discussing the history of food here at Alto-Hartley. The biggest horse race of the year includes plenty of authentic Southern libations, appetizers, meals, and desserts. So be  sure some of these are on your menu if your restaurant, bar, or commercial kitchen is betting on a busy Kentucky Derby event.

Favorite Foods of the Kentucky Derby

Mint Juleps

Traditionally served in a silver cup, Mint Juleps are the official drink of the Kentucky Derby. Made with bourbon, sugar, water, and fresh mint leaves, the Julep is best consumed from silver because it allows ice to form on the outside of the cup. Of course, there’s a proper way to drink a Mint Julep too. The etiquette for drinking a mint julep is to hold either the band on the base of the cup or the top lip so that the heat from your hand doesn’t warm the drink. 

Here are some tips to help mixologists, bartenders, and event hosts make the perfect cool and sweet Mint Julep for a hot summer day:

  • Make a simple syrup from scratch 
  • Be sure to muddle the mint and syrup in a silver cup if possible
  • Add ¾ cup of crushed ice
  • Then pour the bourbon over the ice with a splash of cold water.
  • Stir until the cup becomes frosted on the outside, and garnish with fresh mint!

Hot Browns

Many people may not know what Hot Browns are. However, foodies and chefs in the South know this Kentucky classic. Created in 1920 at the Brown Hotel in Louisville, this open-faced sandwich is comfort food in the southern US. It’s considered one of the favorite foods of the Kentucky Derby.

Hot Browns are served warm (hungry yet?). Two slices of toasted bread layered with turkey and bacon are topped with Mornay sauce and tomato. Mornay is a sinfully savory cheese sauce that has an elevated cheddar flavor. In many cases, it’s made with onion, a bay leaf, Gruyère, and parmesan cheese. Hot Browns may genuinely be the epitome of a taste of home to millions of Americans. 

Many recipes are available online to help make Hot Browns from scratch in your restaurant, diner, or hotel. Just be sure to make them on a full stomach, or you’ll devour the soul-warming sandwiches before they reach customers.


Speaking of comfort foods, how about a hearty stew made with meats and vegetables? If this is on your list of specials to serve to guests for the Kentucky Derby, then you are most likely making Burgoo.

It may sound like a funny name for a meal. However, historians believe it began being called Burgoo as an accident. Made from chicken or other inexpensive bird meat, it’s thought the dish went from being called ‘Bird Stew’ to Burgoo over the years.  

The stew dates back to the 19th century. It was initially meant to be a mixture of leftover ingredients in the pantry or refrigerator. Think meat proteins and vegetables like carrots, onions, and peppers.

While there is some debate about whether Burgoo originated in England or France. Originally created as a meal to be shared, it’s popular at outdoor events such as the Kentucky Derby. 

There is one thing that Burgoo isn’t good for… and that’s wanting dessert. Does anyone have an appetite after eating an authentic Burgoo made of beef, chicken, pork, corn, beans, and potatoes? 

Pecan Pie

This sweet dessert is a Southern classic and a popular choice for Kentucky Derby parties. Historically, there’s no actual documented date proving when the pecan pie first came into existence. Many believe French immigrants to New Orleans made the first one using pecans from Native American tribes. 

On the flip side, other Southern American pastry lovers argue that pecan pie was invented in some time in the 1800s. History books state that pecan pie became a favorite food at the Kentucky Derby in the 1950s. Local bakeries set up shop and began selling the sweet pie to Derby attendees.

Bakers and foodservice operators may love a pecan pie with a twist. Try adding a Kentucky Derby Chocolate Pecan Pie to your bakery case.

Derby Pie®

Last but not least, a Derby Pie is required for any Kentucky Derby celebration. The Derby Pie is a gift to the world from the hearts and kitchen of the Kern family from Kentucky. Created by the Kerns in 1950, the tart is filled with chocolate and walnut and woven into every Kentucky Derby fiber. 

Only licensed bakers can use the name Derby Pie. It’s a registered trademark owned by the Kern family. In addition, the recipe is a secret, making it literally impossible to truly replicate the famous pie. But don’t worry; the Kerns do share some baking tips that involve their family’s pie. 

The Derby Pie website tells Kern’s story in more detail and gives examples of ways to serve Derby Pie if your foodservice business is lucky enough to have it on the menu. 

Prepare the best foods of the Kentucky Derby by having the right commercial kitchen equipment. Visit our showroom and get 10% off with the coupon below.