One that’s been left behind for a good few decades, the Brown Derby cocktail is having its renaissance as a hark back to the scandalous, smoking, speakeasy culture of the roaring 20s.
The golden age of Hollywood. It’s a simple, bourbon-based cocktail that owes its unique ease and flavor to the prohibition laws in America at the time.
If a near century-old classic sounds like your thing, then let’s dive straight into it!
What is a Brown Derby? Where Does it Come From? And When Should I Drink It?
Like so many other cocktails, simplicity really is the Brown Derby’s strength. Traditionally made of just three ingredients, the prohibition era heritage really shines through with the strength of this cocktail.
A simple mix of bourbon, grapefruit juice, and honey syrup creates a lovely balanced palate, with the sweetness of the bourbon and honey taking the edge off the tartness of the grapefruit juice.
If you don’t have any honey syrup to hand, don’t worry, we’ll get into a simple, easy way to whip up your own from your kitchen in just a little bit.
Hailing from Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, in 1930, the Brown Derby is named after the famous LA diners which were shaped like brown derby hats.
Although both original diners have been closed since the 1980s, Disney has managed to revive the classics in the 21st Century with their own restaurant. And much like Disney, the cocktail drinking community is injecting a new lease of life into the Brown Derby, as it makes its comeback into hip and trendy bars up and down the country.
With the Brown Derby’s simplicity and versatility, the question of when you should drink one is really an easy one to answer. Whenever the heck you fancy it!
This bourbon grapefruit cocktail doesn’t have any sort of tradition like an Italian Aperitivo or a summer afternoon Pimm’s so it really is appropriate whenever and wherever you’re drinking. I’d recommend it as an evening drink personally.
The balance of sweet and tart is just enough that it’ll go down best when on a romantic date, or watching your local jazz or blues band reel through the classics to a sophisticated crowd.
Brown Derby Cocktail Recipe
The recipe for the Brown Derby is a simple one, but it packs a punch!
- Step One: Chill a coupe glass in the freezer
- Step Two: Add 2 ounces bourbon, 1-ounce grapefruit juice, and ½ ounce honey syrup to a Boston shaker
- Step Three: Strain into your coupe glass and garnish with a wedge of grapefruit Enjoy!
How to make your own Honey Syrup
Honey syrup is surprisingly easy to make. It’s the same formula as simple syrup but replaces the sugar with honey. Just add equal parts honey and water to a saucepan and heat over low to medium heat. Keep stirring until the honey is dissolved.
Be careful not to let the mix bubble or simmer, you don’t want to burn the sugars in the honey. Sugary syrups tend to keep for a good while if made fresh and stored in the fridge so once you’ve got it, keep it refrigerated for up to a month and have fun mixing up some other fun honey cocktails like a Penicillin or Bee’s Knees.
Why Not Just Use Honey Whiskey? How to Properly Spice Up Your Brown Derby
Honey flavored whiskies (such as JD Honey) are great to drink. However, if you’re making a Brown Derby I’d have to recommend steering clear. If you use it as a substitute for honey syrup, the grapefruit juice will overpower your cocktail and make the drink taste far too tart to enjoy. If you combine it with the honey syrup, the sweetness will overpower the drink.
This isn’t a Pina Colada or Pornstar Martini. It’s supposed to be a strong drink that kicks like a mule with a bit of sweetness to take the edge off it. That said, if you do like your cocktails a bit on the sweeter side, I’d recommend adding a tiny bit more honey syrup into your shaker. Play around with it and see what tickles your fancy.
If you swing the other way, adding a ¼ ounce of lemon juice to the recipe will give your Brown Derby an extra tangy kick that’ll really explode on your tongue!
One of my favorite ways to mix up the Brown Derby is to replace the bourbon with rum.
Yes, rum. Either dark or spiced depending on how much of a kick you’re after. The rum balances really well with the grapefruit juice and honey syrup in much the same way as the bourbon, giving this Californian classic a more Caribbean feel.
The Brown Derby is mentioned in a 1939 edition of Esquire Magazine using dark rum as its base spirit so the idea has been around for a long time, and it really is worth a try if you’re wanting to spice up your grapefruit-flavored drink.
So there you have it: a drink you’ve probably never heard of but you’re now itching to try. It’s simple to make and all the ingredients are easy to find so you really are missing out if you don’t give the Brown Derby a go.
One sip and you’ll be transported back to an age in America where Hollywood was in its infancy and jazz music was in its prime.
Give it a go, you might find yourself with a new favorite drink for the evenings.
I started bartending in 2017, just 4 days after my 18th birthday, at a cocktail bar in my hometown. I immediately fell in love with the art and science of mixology and have since worked in bars across Yarm, York and Liverpool in England.