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The Brown Derby Cocktail

The Brown Derby Cocktail, photo © 2013 Douglas M. Ford, All rights reserved.

Why would a posh LA restaurant name a popular cocktail after a competitor?

At some point in the mid-1930s, the exclusive Vendome Club did just that. The Vendome—sort of a west-coast 21—started serving a version of the whiskey sour named after one of its Hollywood neighbors: the Brown Derby.

The Brown Derby formula—whiskey, honey, and grapefruit juice—had been around for awhile by then. It was published as the De Rigueur in Judge Jr.’s 1927 Here’s How, and again three years later—still as the De Rigueur—in Harry Craddock’s Savoy Cocktail Book.

The Vendome started serving their version of the formula some time in the mid-30s. Their name for the drink—“Brown Derby”—replaced “De Rigueur” in cocktail manuals over time, and is the name we generally encounter today.

The Brown Derby Cocktail (De Rigueur), photo © 2013 Douglas M. Ford. All rights reserved.

The Brown Derby Cocktail (De Rigueur)

The Brown Derby (De Rigueur)

  • 1½ oz whiskey (Bernheim Wheat Whiskey, Weller Antique 107 Bourbon)
  • 1 oz fresh grapefruit juice
  • ⅓ oz honey syrup (2:1)

Shake all ingredients with ice; strain into a chilled cocktail stem. Optionally, express and garnish with a grapefruit twist.

I don’t have a copy of Here’s How, but Eric at Savoy Stomp says the original listing called for Scotch whisky as the base spirit. Craddock was less restrictive at the Savoy: instead of specifying “Scotch,” he generalized with “Whisky.”

It’s easy to fault Craddock for mistakes and sloppy editing, but I’m grateful for this change. I think the formula works much better with American whiskies, specifically bourbon. Rye works well, too, but the soft sweetness of a wheated bourbon seems to match the herbal notes of honey very nicely.

On the other hand, Scotch does work well with honey, particularly if the whisky is not too heavily peated or smoky. The idea in balancing this drink is to avoid burying the grapefruit and honey flavors.

As I’ve noted with other honey-sweetened cocktails, you should always source local honey if you can, then adjust other ingredients to balance the characteristics of the honey. (And I really envy you if you have local grapefruit.)

The way I balanced this drink was to work out the proper balance of the grapefruit and the 2:1 honey mixture, sort of like making lemonade. (Is there such a thing as grapefruit-ade?). For the ingredients I usually have available, this works out to about 3:1 juice to honey syrup. From there, you add your favorite mixing whiskey until you have it right. The balance that works for me usually turns out to be very close to equal parts whiskey and the grapefruit-ade mix.

My bias has always been to serve whiskey sours in rocks glasses, and I find it curious that the Brown Derby is traditionally served up in a stem glass. I’ve found no explanation for this oddity; perhaps that’s how the Vendome served it.

A second Vendome mystery.


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