How to Make a Brown Derby Cocktail

How to Make a Brown Derby Cocktail
JK Grence

I'm somewhat reluctant to admit that I love grapefruit and don't have any citrus trees. I know all too well how this story goes this time of year.

Friends get word of the two facts above. Then, they offer to bring me a couple of grapefruit. I graciously accept. Some other friends offer the same thing, usually while I'm obviously distracted so I just give the automatic "yes" nod. I think I'm going to receive a nice slow and steady stream of grapefruit all season long.

Nope, nope, nope.

See Also: The Science of the Salty Dog

A couple of grapefruit becomes an entire grocery bag of grapefruit. And they all come at the same time. One morning, I wake up and wander outside, only to find my front porch is hip deep in grapefruit.

It's OK. I love grapefruit. Really, I do. Not quite that much, though.

Anyway, I find it somewhat disappointing that the use of grapefruit juice in cocktails is limited largely to vodka highballs. Specifically, there's the Greyhound and its cousin the Salty Dog, and the cranberry-grapefruit Seabreeze. And that's about it.

There must be something more. Of course there's something more, or I wouldn't be writing a column about it, would I?

That something is called the Brown Derby. The history of the drink is about as muddled as a well-made Mojito. It appears to be a product of 1930s Los Angeles. The drink was named for the iconic Brown Derby restaurant, but wasn't a drink served at the restaurant. Instead, it was a signature drink at a competing supper club.   What gives? It's a little quirk of the restaurant business. Even though similar places on the same block are in competition with each other, a certain camaraderie often develops between these direct rivals. That's what happened here. The management of the Club Vendôme were such good friends with the people at the Brown Derby that they named a cocktail for the people down the street.

At least, that's how the story goes. I've seen stranger things happen, and seen more plausible things completely made up. I'd like to at least think it's true.

There are a couple of different versions of the Brown Derby. One is made with dark rum, lime, and maple sugar. It's a nice drink, but it doesn't have the Hollywood Golden Age feeling I enjoy more. If anything, it looks like something that would come out of post-Prohibition New England if it weren't for that lime juice.

And, more importantly, I don't have a zillion bags of limes waiting to get used.

This is a recipe that's not to be followed too closely. There's a wide variety of styles of bourbon out there, and this recipe is best adjusted to match by changing the amount of honey syrup added. Milder bottlings such as Maker's Mark should get a little less honey, while more robust bourbons could go for an extra splash of honey syrup. Make one, taste it, and adjust from there.

Of course, one issue with this drink is that each only uses one little ounce of grapefruit juice at a time. This problem is easily solved by turning it into a tall drink. It's easily done. Add some more grapefruit juice, pour the whole thing over ice, and you're good to go.

I feel I should give a cautionary note regarding your choice of juice. Go for white grapefruit juice. The pink and red varieties of grapefruit tend to be a little sweeter, possibly making your drink too sweet for its own good. Above all else, avoid the sweetened bottled juices such as Ocean Spray Ruby Red. While it's lip-smacking if you're drinking it on it's own, it is definitely too sweet for this drink.

Brown Derby Cocktail 1-1/2 ounces bourbon 1 ounce grapefruit juice 1/3 ounce (about 2 teaspoons) honey syrup (equal parts honey and hot water, stirred to dissolve the honey)

Pour everything into a cocktail shaker. Add ice cubes, and shake well to chill. Strain into a chilled cocktail coupe.

Tall Brown Derby 2 ounces bourbon Honey syrup to taste (Start at 1/2 ounce and go from there) 3 ounces grapefruit juice

Stir together bourbon and honey syrup in a tall glass. Add ice and grapefruit juice, stirring to combine. Add more honey and/or juice to taste.

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