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Classic Bourbon Cocktails: The Brown Derby

Creative cocktails are great, but sometimes, nothing beats a classic. In honor of National Bourbon Heritage Month, we’re taking a second look at some of the most canonical bourbon cocktails. None of these will win you Crazy Mixologist of the Year award, but that’s OK. Drinks become classics for a reason: they’re particularly delicious, and as a bonus, most are also easy to make. We’ve already paid homage to the Old Fashioned, the Mint Julep, and the Manhattan. Now, as National Bourbon Heritage Month winds to a close, we’ll leave you with one of the easiest, most delicious, and most underappreciated bourbon cocktails: the Brown Derby.

Unlike many classic cocktails, the Brown Derby traces its origin story not to a New York bar or a Kentucky tavern, but to a Los Angeles restaurant—or rather, a chain of restaurants—called The Brown Derby. The Brown Derby chain was famous for several reasons, including allegedly inventing the cobb salad as well as appearing in numerous films and television shows, but its most striking claim to fame has to be its architecture. Yes, the Brown Derby restaurants were, in fact, shaped exactly like a brown derby hat, brim and all.

But the Brown Derby cocktail wasn’t actually served at the Brown Derby restaurant. Instead, a bartender at the Vendome Café in Hollywood, invented the combination of grapefruit, honey, and bourbon, and named it after the iconic apparel-themed restaurant, one of which was located nearby.

What I like most about this drink is how incredibly easy and forgiving it is to make. All of its ingredients are easy to find at even the most poorly stocked standard grocery store, yet the resulting cocktail is dimensional and satisfying. It’s also one of those rare drinks that feels truly appropriate any time of year; the tart, citrusy flavor of the grapefruit is welcome during the warm months of spring and summer, but the richness of honey builds a bridge to fall and winter—incidentally, when grapefruits are actually at their peak. Isn’t it nice to have a bright, refreshing winter cocktail in your back pocket, for when the endless stream of dark and stirred drinks starts to wear you down?

Brown Derby
image via Steven Guzzardi/flickr

Brown Derby Cocktail

  • 2 oz bourbon (don’t overspend; something like Jim Beam Black or Four Roses yellow label works just fine)
  • 1 oz grapefruit juice
  • ½ oz honey syrup (honey diluted with just enough water to make it mixable; one part water to two or three parts honey should do it)
  • Strip of grapefruit zest for garnish (optional)

Combine all ingredients in a shaker with ice. Shake, then strain into a chilled serving glass. Garnish with optional grapefruit zest.

Margarett Waterbury

Margarett Waterbury is the author of Scotch: A Complete Introduction to Scotland's Whiskies and a full-time freelance writer and editor. Her work has appeared in Whisky Advocate, Food and Wine, Spirited Magazine, Artisan Spirit, Edible Seattle, Sip Northwest, Civil Eats, Travel Oregon, Artisan Spirit, and many other publications. She is the former managing editor of Edible Portland, as well as a cofounder and former managing editor of The Whiskey Wash. In 2017, Margarett won the Alan Lodge Young Drinks Writer of the Year award. She received a fellowship for the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers in 2017 and 2019.

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