If ever there was a time to learn a new cocktail, it’s Thanksgiving 2020. Most of us will be stuck at home, not going to Thanksgiving weekend movies, and not going out to bars either. That means it’s time to order in some booze and up those bar skills. May we suggest the iconic Brown Derby?
The Brown Derby is a classic that harkens back to the golden era of Hollywood and partying on the Sunset Strip in the 1930s. It’s a devilishly simple mix of bourbon, fresh grapefruit juice, and honey syrup. It’s also actually a bit older than Hollywood, too. The cocktail is a variation on the De Rigueur — which uses scotch instead of bourbon but is otherwise the same.
The brilliance of this drink is in its simplicity. It’s three ingredients, shaken over ice. That’s it. But, as with all cocktails, the details are what make the cocktail shine. You’re going to need to make a honey syrup (don’t worry, we tell you how to make it below) and squeeze some grapefruits. Other than that, it’s just a matter of arm endurance for shaking up a frothy elixir.
Why are we calling this drink out at this particular moment is pretty straightforward. This is a deliciously refreshing cocktail that has some depth. A good, spicy bourbon adds a wintry edge. Plus, grapefruit is just coming into season right now. That means that they’re going to be prime for their juice and flavor. Lastly, the honey adds a velvet texture and really ties the warming bourbon nicely to the sharp citrus.
Let’s stop talking and get to mixing!
The Brown Derby
- 2-oz. bourbon
- 1.5-oz. grapefruit juice (freshly squeezed)
- 0.5-oz. honey syrup***
- Grapefruit peel
The real key to this cocktail is the fresh grapefruit juice that’s properly strained of all of its pulp. Look, you can 100 percent use a store-bought grapefruit juice. But the fresh juice adds that professional edge to the cocktail.
I’m using a standard bourbon from Basil Hayden’s. It’s got a slight citrus nature with plenty of oak that will shine through with a nice dose of peppery spice to accent the honey and grapefruit.
*For the honey syrup, use a 1:1 ratio of honey to water. Add both to a small pot and just bring to a boil to emulsify while stirring. Let cool completely before use. I use a 1/2 cup to 1/2 cup mix as that makes enough honey syrup for 16 cocktails. It’ll last about a month in the fridge. I keep mine in leftover Campari Soda bottles as seen below.
- Shaker (a Boston shaker is ideal but an old jar with a tight lid will work too)
- Cocktail strainer
- Mesh strainer
- Pairing knife
- Fruit juicer
- Bottles or glasses for juice and honey syrup
- Coupe glass or Nick and Nora glass
If you don’t store your glasses in a freezer, then the first thing you want to do is add some ice to your glass and set it aside.
Next, slice off a few, about thumb-width and length pieces of rind from the grapefruit. They should be thin but thick enough to pick up some of the pith without hitting the flesh of the fruit. A standard vegetable peeler should do this fairly exactly each time.
Time to juice some fruit. I’m using a standard tabletop juicer. So, I cut the grapefruit in half and then juice both halves.
Once that’s done, I use a small mesh strainer and funnel to get the juice into a little bottle (again, I’m using old Campari Soda bottles — you can use anything). The strainer is there to remove the excess pulp from the juice. You don’t want bits of pulp mucking up your cocktail.
With that, we’re ready to go! I add in the bourbon, grapefruit juice, and honey syrup. I then top that up with ice to about 3/4 way to the top.
I affix my lid — I’m using a Boston Shaker but any shaker will do — and get to shaking.
I shake over my shoulder for about 20 to 30 seconds or until the metal part of the shaker is literally frosting over.
Next, I do a bigger shake in front of me in a large oval shape up and down for another 15 or so seconds. This is to really aerate the drink and build up that froth.
As you can see above, there’s a nice froth on the top of the drink. That’s what you’re looking for.
Lastly, I lose the ice from the coupe glass and ready my cocktail strainer and a mesh strainer. I’m ready to pour.
I pour through the mesh strainer into the ice-cold glass. This does two things. It removes tiny shards of ice that’ll muddle and eventually water down your cocktail while adding a little more air (body) to the drink.
Lastly, I spritz the grapefruit rind onto the cocktail and rub the rind around the lip, bowl, and stem.
The Bottom Line:
You might not think you need a refreshing drink as winter sets in, but this cocktail will change your mind. Moreover, the subtle blend of grapefruit, honey, and bourbon just works so goddamn well together. It’s bright, dark, fresh, honeyed, and very sippable.
As for “why now?”
Well, this is a fairly light cocktail all things considered. It’s easy to make and very easy to drink. When you’re looking down the barrel of multiple courses of carbs and protein and then pie, you need a drink this light and refreshing as a stop-gap between rounds of food.
Basically, if you put away stuffing like we do, you’ll be glad to have a few of these as a counterbalance.