Brown Derby Cocktail

The Brown Derby is a classic cocktail made with grapefruit and whiskey. A true Old Hollywood drink, you will be feeling fancy in no time with one of these drinks in hand.

a classic brown derby cocktail with a blue napkin

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Brown Derby cocktail recipe

Grapefruit cocktails are truly underrated.

From the paloma to the grapefruit mule, grapefruit adds a tart and bitter quality to cocktails.

Add the Brown Derby cocktail to the list. It’s a bright, sweet and slightly tart cocktail made with honey, grapefruit and whiskey.

Based on the name, you might think it’s a Kentucky Derby cocktail (à la the mint julep) but it’s not.

This classic cocktail is a vintage cocktail named for a notable restaurant of the Golden Age of Hollywood.

top view of a grapefruit and a grapefruit cocktail and a jigger

History of the Brown Derby

According to Dale DeGroff’s 2002 book, “The Craft of the Cocktail,” the Brown Derby was first served in the 1930s at the Vendôme Club in Los Angeles and was named for a notable restaurant called The Brown Derby.

The recipe for this grapefruit drink was first printed in the 1933 book Hollywood Cocktails, as well as in the 1930 book The Savoy Cocktail Book by Harry Craddock, but under a different name, the De Rigueur Cocktail.

The Brown Derby Restaurant

The Brown Derby was a famous chain of Hollywood restaurants in the 1920s and 30s. The first and best known was shaped like a brown derby hat (see a photo) but there were other locations around Los Angeles.

Dining at one would likely result in a celebrity sighting, so they became popular restaurants. It is said that Clark Gable proposed to Carole Lombard there and it is the scene for one of the Hollywood episodes of I Love Lucy (“L.A. at Last”).

In addition to this cocktail, several famous recipes hail from the Brown Derby. It is said to be the birthplace of the Cobb salad and, according to the actress Shirley Temple, the Shirley Temple drink was invented at the Brown Derby in the 1930s.

Even though the Brown Derby itself is closed, you can still enjoy some of the glitz and glamour of Tinseltown at the replica Hollywood Brown Derby restaurant at Walt Disney World’s Hollywood Studios in Orlando.

Though Disney’s menu doesn’t appear to offer the Brown Derby cocktail, you can order the famous Brown Derby Grapefruit Cake.

a jar of honey simple syrup sits on a wooden cutting board

Ingredients

You only need a few ingredients to make a Brown Derby cocktail.

Honey syrup

Have you ever tried to mix honey into a drink? As soon as it hits ice, it seizes up and becomes harder to dissolve.

The answer is honey syrup, which is honey mixed with hot water to create a liquid sweetener that’s much easier to stir into a drink. (It’s also sometimes called “runny honey.”)

It’s similar to a simple syrup, which you could use instead if you don’t have honey on hand to make honey syrup.

Honey syrup is made with equal parts honey and hot water. It’s so easy to make.

Grapefruit juice

As with any citrus, it’s best to use fresh grapefruit juice for this cocktail, so pick up a ripe grapefruit at the grocery store. Hint: It will be a little easier to juice your grapefruit if it’s room temperature.

You can use any kind of juicer, but my favorite is my electric juicer (affiliate link).

If you use citrus a lot and have the cabinet space, you will NOT regret getting one of these, I promise! It makes juicing citrus so easy — you can use it for lemons, oranges and limes too. It does a great job of getting allllll the juice out of each fruit.

You can also use a citrus squeezer (affiliate link) (though it will take some hand strength!), a reamer or a hand juicer. Here are some of my favorite juicers:

Bourbon

Bourbon brings its sweet, oaky, caramel flavor to the Brown Derby. You can use just about any bourbon you can find.

My go-to brands are Old Forester, Bulleit, Woodford Reserve, Angel’s Envy and Maker’s Mark. If you have a favorite, use that.

Check out my crash course on this spirit, Bourbon 101, for more about this amazing and strong spirit.

Garnish

The Brown Derby cocktail is usually garnished with a twist of grapefruit zest or a wedge of grapefruit.

a brown derby cocktail on a marble background

How to make a Brown Derby

Making this classic grapefruit cocktail is super easy. Here’s what to do:

First, make your honey syrup. Combine equal parts of honey and water in a saucepan and stir until combined. (You can also warm up hot water in the microwave, then stir in the honey to melt it.) Let cool slightly before using.

Then, measure out your bourbon, grapefruit juice and a little bit of honey syrup into a cocktail shaker filled with ice.

Shake it really well and then strain it into a coupe glass. Garnish with a piece of grapefruit peel or a grapefruit slice.

Variations and substitutions

Non-alcoholic Brown Derby. Use a strong zero-proof spirit such as Ritual whiskey alternative (affiliate link).

Maple Brown Derby. Use maple syrup instead of honey syrup.

Brown sugar Brown Derby. Use brown sugar syrup instead of honey syrup.

Irish Brown Derby. Use Irish whiskey instead of bourbon to make this drink. (Or use any other type of whiskey.)

Rosemary Brown Derby. Infuse rosemary with your honey syrup. See this rosemary simple syrup recipe and use honey instead of sugar.

A grapefruit with a brown derby cocktail

More whiskey recipes

In the mood for another classic bourbon cocktail? Try one of these:

More classic cocktails

For more Hollywood cocktails, try one of these recipes:

a brown derby drink with a grapefruit wedge garnish

Brown Derby Cocktail

Yield: 1 cocktail
Prep Time: 5 minutes
Cook Time: 10 minutes
Total Time: 15 minutes

Feel like a member of Old Hollywood when you make a classic Brown Derby cocktail!

Ingredients

For the honey syrup

  • ½ cup honey
  • ½ cup water

For the cocktail

  • 2 ounces bourbon
  • 1 ounce grapefruit juice
  • 1 ounce honey syrup

Instructions

Honey syrup

  1. In a medium saucepan over medium heat, combine honey and water.
  2. Stir until the honey is fully incorporated. Remove from heat and let cool.
  3. Store in an airtight container in the fridge.

Brown Derby cocktail

  1. Add bourbon, grapefruit juice and honey syrup to a cocktail shaker filled with ice.
  2. Shake well and strain into a coupe glass.

Recommended Products

As an Amazon Associate and member of other affiliate programs, I earn from qualifying purchases.

Nutrition Information:
Yield: 1 Serving Size: 1
Amount Per Serving: Calories: 205Total Fat: 0gSaturated Fat: 0gTrans Fat: 0gUnsaturated Fat: 0gCholesterol: 0mgSodium: 2mgCarbohydrates: 20gFiber: 0gSugar: 17gProtein: 0g

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