Ever since I was a young girl reading the story of a racehorse in A Horse Called Wonder, I’ve dreamt of attending the Kentucky Derby. The flamboyant hats, the red-carpet-worthy ensembles, the signature mint juleps, the quest for the Triple Crown, and the rose drapes combine to create an iconic event, a celebration of Southern culture, and incidentally, the longest-running sporting event in US history.
A DIY KENTUCKY DERBY PARTY ROOTED IN SUSTAINABILITY
While attending the derby remains high on my bucket list, I’m also a big believer in making my own fun in the meantime. I’m not alone in my DIY-derby sentiment. If you’re lucky enough to be a close friend of Becca Ringham Myerburg and Mike Myerburg, you don’t have to travel to Kentucky for the first Saturday in May. You simply have to arrive at their home, where they have been hosting derby parties for decades. You do, however, have to wear the appropriate millinery. Becca does come from a long line of Southern belles, and some things are sacred. Among those things: using locally and sustainably grown flowers to embellish your hat and your table.
The Kentucky Derby, known for its iconic crowns of roses, is often called the “Run for the Roses.” While you will see horseshoes, family heirloom julep cups, pecan pies, and a flight of bourbons at the Myerburgs’ derby party, you will not see a single rose. What you will see are the fruits of Becca’s labors as an organic flower farmer.
Sharing a passion for gardening and the outdoors, Becca and Mike dreamed of moving to a farm where they could learn about and practice sustainable growing methods while raising their family. They purchased a 50-acre farm and named it after a farmhouse located on the property that dates back to the late 1800s. According to an old map, it was called “Eleven Mile House” because it was located approximately eleven miles from downtown Pittsburgh, and very fittingly for a derby party, it was a stagecoach stop where patrons could water their horses.
The flower component of Eleven Mile Farm emerged after Becca took an online floral farming course. The following spring Becca turned a 25 x 50-foot plot of land into an experiment to answer the questions, “Can I do this?” and “Do I like this?” The answer was a resounding yes, and the farm has been growing ever since, as has Becca’s mission to educate others on the slow flower movement.
Through her Instagram posts (@elevenmilefarm), flower sales, and workshops, she aims to highlight how challenging farming is, why we all need to support local growers, and how we can adapt more sustainable practices into gardening projects of all sizes. Her goal is to cultivate healthy soil, so she can grow the healthiest flowers possible. It turns out that healthy, locally-grown blooms look as, if not more, beautiful on wide-brimmed hats as red roses.
This spring, take a few cues from Becca and Mike, so you can celebrate the pomp and circumstance of a two-minute race. Then take a few more cues from Becca and Mike, so that your party can be part of something bigger: a movement to appreciate and support local blooms and all the hard work that goes into growing them.
Be sure to check out the farm’s website to learn more about their CSA bouquet program, workshops, and special events, or simply, to learn how you can buy local blooms to deck out your derby hat. elevenmilefarm.com
TIPS TO HOST A MEMORABLE, MINTY DIY DERBY PARTY
To Eat: The Derby Grazing Board
Make like a winning racehorse, and … graze! A variety of fixings means your guest can pick and choose their own adventure, and nothing keeps up with the alcohol content of Mint Juleps more than an authentically Southern Wise County Biscuit with Pimento Cheese.
Handcrafted walnut board, Fort Pitt Trading Company, fortpitttrading.com
Rustic Italian loaves, Enrico Biscotti Co., enricobiscotti.com
Wise County Biscuits with Pimento Cheese & Sorghum-Whipped Butter, wisecountybiscuits.com
Chocolate-Pecan Mini Pies, Five Points Bakery fivepointsartisanbakeshop.com
Apricot & Nut Kolaczki Cookies, S&D Deli, sdpolishdeli.com
Eleven Mile Farm Deviled Eggs with Farm-Fresh Herbs
Summer Berry Cake with Eleven Mile Farm Flowers
Black Forest ham
To Drink: The Quintessential Julep Station & A Pennsylvania Bourbon Flight
Kentucky and bourbon go together like, well, they go together like Kentucky and bourbon! However, the good folks at PA Libations would like to give Pennsylvania its fair share of the aged-and-oaked spotlight. They’ve rounded up a julep-worthy station from their tried-and-true collection, as well as some special releases. There’s always something new and interesting, so be sure to talk to an employee for the back stories, flavor profiles, and sustainability initiatives. A distillery that grows its own grains? Yes, please! palibations.com
Eight Oaks Distillery
Penna Rye Whiskey, Bourbon, Pinot Bourbon, Port Rye Whiskey
Eight Oaks is a grain-to-glass distillery. It creates world-class spirits from the grains grown right on their farm in New Tripoli, PA, in the heart of the Lehigh Valley. eightoaksdistillery.com
Hidden Still Spirits
David E. Red Bourbon, David E. Black Bourbon
After purchasing an old Hershey company facility and renovating it into a top-notch distillery, their handcrafted approach to whiskey making has made them a fast-growing favorite across the Keystone State. hiddenstillspirits.com
Liberty Pole Spirits
Bourbon (made with heirloom heritage Bloody Butcher corn), Rye Whiskey Peated Bourbon
In the heart of Washington County, where the infamous Whiskey Rebellion took place, the name is a reference to the liberty poles that were erected to protest the whiskey tax levied on distillers in the earliest days of the new republic during the 18th century. libertypolespirits.com
Their Vatting House concept is an attempt to find some of the most delicious whiskey and spirits casks from Pennsylvania and around the world. Each product is unique and limited in quantity, giving an aspect of hunt-and-chase for each release. sweetrust.com
A Classic Farm-Fresh Mint Julep
When serving a crowd, skip the muddling, and just pack each glass with a hearty bunch of farm-fresh mint.
2 oz Pennsylvania bourbon
1/4 oz simple syrup (try making it with raw cane or coconut sugar)
A hearty bunch of farm-fresh mint
Combine the bourbon and simple syrup in a julep cup, then pack the cup tightly with crushed ice. Stir until the cup is frosted on the outside. Firmly slap the mint sprigs on the back of your hand before garnishing to release the oils, making the mint more aromatic. Garnish generously with mint, and enjoy!
Engage in some friendly wagers. Ask each guest to contribute a donation in the name of their charity of choice. Place all the competing horse names in a (stylish) hat, and have each party guest draw their “bet.” Whoever wins gets to donate the whole pot to the charity of their choice. Conversely, you can also play what the derby calls the “lucky longshots” and follow the same process to bet on the losing horse. Since everything goes to a good cause, it’s still a win!
STORY AND STYLING BY QUELCY KOGEL / PHOTOGRAPHY BY CHRISTINE ARMBRUSTER