When Pure Leaf Tea invited me to attend the Kentucky Derby on their behalf, I was giddy mid-guffaw. I had never been to the derby, and 2 minutes after accepting their invitation I started to worry about what hat to wear. Part Southern tradition, part spectacle, the Kentucky Derby ‘hat parade’ is much of what makes “The Greatest Two Minutes in Sports” one of the greatest people-watching events in the world. From the fantastic to the sublime, there are no rules or limits when it comes to choosing a derby hat.
I quickly discovered Seattle is not as crazy about fanciful hats as are the cities strewn across the southern states. In the end, I found a hat from Nordstrom: black with cream ribbon trim and an attached red rose. To match I bought rose-toed red shoes. Then chose a black/white sleeveless dress I had found at an estate sale plus a shiny patent red belt—I was ready to go.
I sipped Pure Leaf, sampled mint juleps, charged my camera, packed my bags and hopped the plane. Thursday night (May 3) was a lovely Taste of Derby event—a hanger full of restaurant booths and former Top Chef contestants, stands where you could load up on everything from grilled quail to caramel chocolate pop-ups to artichoke soup and gin gimlets. I had the keen pleasure of noshing with folks from Pure Leaf Tea—plus Alanna, Tammy and Joe.
Friday May 4 we got our first taste of Churchill Downs—this historical, enormous track and facilities—while attending the Kentucky Oaks. We were fortunate enough to go on a quick tour of the grounds, waltzing through Millionaires Row, checking out the stands, and spending time in the infield (the infield is where people where jeans and t-shirts and set up chairs in a casual, campground spirit—mud brawl I heard someone say). Patrons in stands were decked out with hats and heels, bow-ties and pinstripes. Millionaires Row is where the big spenders and celebrities hang out, placing big bets and enjoying air-conditioned facilities.
Saturday May 5 was Derby Day—we were joined by Gail Simmons, who was also attending the derby on behalf of Pure Leaf Tea. It was brilliant to meet her and she rocked it with a gorgeous red dress and southern elegance. What a day it was! The hats, the horses, betting and almost winning… I loved learning about different kinds of bets: Trifecta and Superfecta Box, Win/Place/Show and more. I placed my $2 and $6 bets here and there and watched a pile of races, cheering on horses with the best of them. The derby race itself was spectacular: the adrenaline and hum during those 2 minutes was palpable.
Things I will remember not to forget: betting on horses, almost winning a few hundred on a chance Trifecta bet (and ultimately coming out even). There was sampling the official cocktails (Oaks’ Lily and Derby’s Mint Julep), watching a parade of gorgeous hats (see pics below), and scads of women walking funny by day’s end due to standing and walking all day in high heels. I will recall: the large veins on the horses post race, how tiny the jockeys were, breakfast with Gail Simmons, new friends, the downpour at the Oaks—the races were temporarily suspended and everyone went for cover—plus sampling shrimp and grits, chicken and waffles, and the famous derby pie.
When I returned home I was inspired to make a few cocktails of my own using Pure Leaf Tea. Just so you know: Pure Leaf is brewed with hand-picked tea leaves and not powder. And although tea is big in the south, it is growing in popularity in the Pacific Northwest. Not just as a straight beverage, but as a top contender for inclusion in cocktails. With that in mind, I made my own mint julep, or rather ‘tea julep’:
Pure Leaf sweetened tea
Muddle mint with ice. Add more ice to fill glass. Into glass: 2/3 bourbon and 1/3 sweet tea, garnish with mint and serve. Alternatively: make mint simple syrup. In glass filled with ice, pour 1/6 with the syrup, 2/6 with unsweetened Pure Leaf Tea and then fill up with bourbon. Stir and serve. Note: for a non-tea julep, just include the mint simple syrup and bourbon and a solid splash of water.
Elements of my trip were hosted and arranged by Pure Leaf Tea. My experience—and opinions—are my own.