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For these fans, the Kentucky Derby is sober and spirited

A woman in pink stands at Churchill Downs with a drink in her hand.
J. Tyler Franklin
For some, new Derby traditions with their family and friends they've met in recovery far surpass the times they were drinking on race day.

The Kentucky Derby is a big day for drinking in Louisville. It can be triggering for people in recovery, but different groups in town offer alcohol-free spaces where people can find camaraderie Saturday.

Jesse Hawkins stopped drinking just a couple weeks before the 2014 Kentucky Derby.

Hawkins still went to Churchill Downs that year to see the most exciting two minutes in sports. He remembers watching the horses walk onto the track, and “My Old Kentucky Home” starting to play.

“And I’m standing there and I’m looking around. And everyone’s holding up a mint julep … they’re, you know, hugging their friends. And I remember holding a bottle of water at the time.”

That moment sparked the idea for The Mocktail Project. He launched that initiative later on, with the mission of making community events more inclusive.

It’s why he was out at WFPK Waterfront Wednesday last week, serving mocktails from his mobile bar.

The taps are built into a three-wheeled cart, and they pump out booze-free drinks.

A woman walked over that evening to see what he was offering, but politely declined when she realized everything was non-alcoholic.

Hawkins said that’s a common reaction, but it’s OK. He’s here for people like him – people who don’t use alcohol.

Jesse Hawkins of The Mocktail Project stands behind the wooden counter of his mobile bar, which is a white, three-wheeled vehicle that features several taps. A sign advertises the non-alcoholic margarita and other mocktails he's serving out at WFPK Waterfront Wednesday.
Morgan Watkins
Jesse Hawkins started The Mocktail Project to make community events more inclusive for people who don't drink alcohol. Last week, he brought his mobile bar out to WFPK Waterfront Wednesday, where he served a non-alcoholic margarita and other mocktails.

“There’s always a pregnant mother, there’s always somebody in recovery. And the people that tend to find the bar are so grateful,” he said.

Josh Miller, who used to live in Louisville and still travels here for his work as co-founder and CEO of IDEAS xLab, said he connected with Hawkins and the Mocktail Project after he quit drinking, too.

The last time he drank alcohol was actually on Derby Day in 2018. He was out at Churchill Downs, where he had a mint julep and some bourbon while he enjoyed the day with a great crowd of people.

He’d been thinking for a while about quitting drinking.

“I didn't know going into it … that that would be the last day that I drank,” Miller said. “But it was also one of those things where if you can end on a high note, especially if you're choosing when that ending is, like that seemed like the right place for that relationship to end.”

He saw Hawkins serving mocktails at the track a year later, for the 2019 Derby.

“And you could get garnished mocktails that were themed after the mint julep and themed after the (Oaks) lily,” he said. “I still felt like I'm participating in all of the things that we do at the track and that we associate with Derby. My mocktail just doesn’t have alcohol in it.”

A father and son came up while he was at Hawkins’ mocktail station.

“The father's holding a mint julep. They ordered a mocktail for the son. They did a cheers. So it was this other way of young people even getting to experience the ritual of Derby,” he said.

Miller and Hawkins both said they appreciate when an event offers non-alcoholic drinks that are fancier than just a soda water or a coke.

For other Louisvillians who’ve quit drinking, though, it’s better to skip non-alcoholic cocktails and avoid bourbon-centric events altogether.

For the 2023 Derby, there are alcohol-free places to find camaraderie with other sober people.

Token 3 Club at 3439 Breckenridge Lane is hosting a sober Derby party from 2 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.

Molly Gray, the club’s assistant executive director, said they’ll have a chili cookoff, cornhole and other games while the horse races roll on TV. They’ll also have 12-step recovery meetings, like they do every day.

“The Token 3 Club is a safe and welcoming gathering place for people who are working a 12-step program,” Gray said. “We have served the Louisville community since 1965, so we’ve been around for a really long time.”

Marc Joos, the chairman of the club’s board of directors, said Derby can be triggering for people who’ve stopped using alcohol or drugs.

“It is a party day. For a lot of people that’s a good thing, but for some people that can be a problem,” he said. “So it’s nice to know that there’s alternatives to spend the day – away from those temptations.”

On a wet Kentucky Derby day in 2018, a man in a red, blue and white blazer purchases a drink. People in the crowd embrace each other behind him.
J. Tyler Franklin
Bars are plentiful at the Kentucky Derby. For some people who don't drink alcohol, mocktails are a good option. For others, it's better to be away from anything associated with drinking.

The E-Z Duz It Center at 6605 Lower Hunters Trace is hosting a Derby party, too, beginning at 10 a.m.

Another boozeless space where people can hang out is the Louisville Recovery Community Connection at 620 S 3rd St. It’s open Friday and Saturday – the week’s biggest race days – until 5 p.m.

Stephanie Coy has worked at the LRCC for about two years. Since she got into recovery several years ago, she said she’s learned there are upsides to skipping alcohol on Race Day.

“You know early on, when I quit drinking, I just kind of looked at it as, well, you know, I have a lot more money to bet now,” she said.

She and three other people in recovery who are involved with the LRCC – Rebecca Goodwin, Dylan Mingus and Ashley Thompson – told LPM News they’ve found new ways to relate to and enjoy Derby.

And they said there’s plenty of community available, at the LRCC and many other places around town, for anyone who wants it.

“Depending on how much you want to participate … there's AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) clubhouses that do sober Derby events,” Mingus said. “You can bet on the horses, and come be around like-minded, sober people, and still have a lot of fun and be coherent for all of it, you know?”

Coy added, “Really, here, it all depends on what kind of community you’re looking for. Whatever that might be, we can find it for you and help give that to you.”

Morgan is LPM's health reporter. Email Morgan at mwatkins@lpm.org.

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