Derby Pie Is The Rich Kentucky Dessert Infused With Bourbon

When it comes to the Kentucky Derby — America's premiere competitive horse race — there are as many traditions as there are spectators. Women are expected to wear outlandish hats, while viewers are plied with mint juleps if they require refreshment. And if a Derby participant should have a hankering for dessert, they must have a slice of the classic derby pie. 

Depending on where you dine, your derby pie filling can be an amalgamation of chocolate and pecans or chocolate and walnuts, with a flaky pastry crust supporting its gooey interior. One nearly constant ingredient is that signature splash of Kentucky bourbon, a mainstay of the Southern bar and kitchen. Of course, actually calling your dessert a derby pie may land you with a hefty fine and possibly a lawsuit for copyright infringement: In the 1960s, the baked good company Kern's Kitchen — based in Louisville — slapped a trademark on the Derby-Pie name. Today, Kern's produces hundreds of Derby-Pies a day, made with walnuts, chocolate, and a number of other secret ingredients. The company isn't afraid to fight for its trademark, either, having sued other food service establishments and even Bon Appetit magazine for using the term (via NPR). Still, the pie has enough fans to make it a ubiquitous household dessert, even if it does often go under names like "chocolate pecan pie" or "Kentucky bourbon pie." So what's the story behind this Kentucky classic?

A nutty and chocolate-rich classic

According to Kern Kitchen lore, the derby pie first popped up in 1954 at the Melrose Inn in Louisville, Kentucky, run by Leaudra and Walter Kern. Their chocolate and walnut pie was made without bourbon, a key difference between this mainstay and the many offshoots to follow. In fact, this bit of bourbon became the way most restaurants and magazines sidestepped any trademark legal troubles, dubbing their pies "Kentucky bourbon pie." Still, this bourbon addition is relatively small, with usually only two tablespoons called for — and much of that booze bakes off anyway. Pecans, the unofficial nut of the South, also usurped the walnut in popularity as bakers found the derby pie format a perfect way to create a chocolate-rich take on a pecan pie. 

Often, chocolate chips or chopped chocolate are mixed with toasted pecans, then suspended in a corn syrup, egg, and brown sugar filling. The crust is a traditional buttery pastry shell, but some double chocolate derby pies will use a cocoa-infused pie crust. If you really want to drive the bourbon flavor home, you can accompany each slice of the pie with a bourbon-infused whipped cream.

Although the pie is most commonly associated with the horse race held on the first Saturday in May, it's also not unusual to see it served during Thanksgiving and Christmas feasts. But whether you make it to toast the Derby or the holiday season, this Kentucky pie will fit the bill for a classic treat.