Photography: Katrina Wittkamp

Chandra Ram’s Kentucky Derby party includes a mint julep bar

Drinks served in authentic Derby glasses

A Southern specialty that’s welcome at any occasion is red velvet cake, this one from Fox & Obel.

The occasion
Each year, Chandra Ram hosts a Kentucky Derby party, instructing her Chicago friends on the finer points of celebrating bluegrass country’s biggest day (this year, May 6). "People here don’t realize that in Kentucky, Derby day is an all-day holiday," she says. "Everyone throws parties and basically spends the entire day getting ready for, and recovering from, two minutes of racing."

The vibe
Ram has an easy, casual style of entertaining. Guests often arrive at her West Bucktown home to find her just rolling out the dough for homemade pasta or preparing a tenderloin on her indoor grill. They’re invited to watch, of course, and chat while nibbling on hors d’oeuvres and enjoying a cocktail or two.

The menu
Among the traditional treats Ram makes for the party are spicy macaroni and cheese, deviled eggs, Derby pies, cheese straws, cole slaw, Coca-Cola baked ham, and biscuits. "We buy fried chicken from a caterer, because it’s just so messy and the house smells of oil all day if you make that much yourself," she says. Aside from the race, the party’s main attraction is the do-it-yourself mint julep bar, featuring homemade simple syrup, fresh mint, and, of course, Kentucky bourbon. Ram also offers a pitcher of sparkling water or club soda for bourbon-drinking novices. "People who would normally never think of drinking bourbon become instant julep experts and toss them back all afternoon."

For dessert, a red velvet cake always makes an appearance. "It’s absolutely a Southern thing," Ram says of the classic devil’s food cake dyed red with food coloring and iced with white frosting. She likes to make hers into cupcakes and decorate them with green sprinkles and small plastic horses. For those less inclined to bake, she says Fox & Obel (401 E. Illinois St., 312-379-0108) makes one of the best, and prettiest, red velvet cakes in town.

The décor
Ram’s most elaborate bit of preparation is a pre-party trip to Kentucky to buy kitschy highball glasses decorated with that year’s Derby theme, although that might become less necessary in future years. "In Kentucky, people know to take them home after the party," she says. "But here they don’t, so I have a lot left over from past years." She also buys plenty of red roses and arranges them in glass vases and silver mint julep cups around the house. "The Derby is also called the Run for the Roses, because the winning horse is draped with a red rose blanket."

Kentucky Derby Mint Juleps

Yield: 1 drink

  • 2-3 oz. Bourbon
  • 1 tbsp. mint simple syrup
  • Ice, mint leaves, sparkling water as needed

Fill a Derby glass halfway with ice. Add bourbon, syrup, and a few chopped mint leaves. Top off with sparkling water to taste; stir.

Mint simple syrup: Heat 2 cups of granulated sugar with 2 cups of water over high heat until the sugar dissolves and the mixture simmers. Remove from heat and pour over 1 cup chopped mint leaves. Refrigerate several hours or overnight; strain out leaves and serve in a pitcher.