The Brown Derby and the Challenges of Working with Whiskey

See more Recipes

Brown Derby Cocktail

Whiskey can be a challenging ingredient in cocktails. Gin is kind of the workhorse of the cocktail world; it works in pretty much everything and fails in almost nothing. But whiskey is a fickle thing. There aren’t a ton Irish whiskey cocktails, because Irish whiskey has a pretty unique profile. Cocktails made with smoky Islay whisky basically don’t exist, and the vast majority of bourbon cocktails are spirit-driven, with the exception of variations on a Whiskey Sour.

Why is that? Well, for one, bourbon kinda clashes with a lot of fruit juices. Bourbon has all of this vanilla and caramel and candied orange peel that goes well with some fruits and not others. Think about it for a minute: how many delicious bourbon drinks have you tried with lime or orange juice? One? At best? Bourbon and lime juice go together like red velvet cake and sardines, let’s just admit it.

Evan Williams Single Barrel 1998 Vintage

But lemon juice? Totally. Cranberry juice? Oh, definitely. But what about grapefruit? Well, oddly enough, the most polarizing of citrus fruits is a beautiful match for bourbon, or at least it can be. You just need one more ingredient that can bridge the gap between bourbon’s sweet, earthy, caramel flavors, and grapefruit’s acidic, floral tang.

Honey is this weird ingredient that can tie flavors together when you need it to. And by some miracle it sits in this perfect place between bourbon and grapefruit. Credit goes to the bartenders at Billy Wilkerson’s Vendôme Club in Los Angeles, who oddly named it for a neighboring bar, the Brown Derby. A quick search reveals the basic components go back to the Savoy Cocktail Book, in a curiously similar drink titled the De Rigeur.

At any rate, the Brown Derby is one of those back pocket drinks, for the times when a guest or friend is looking for something different. And as far as whiskey cocktails go, this one couldn’t be much more different.

Brown Derby Print Me

  • 1.5 oz/45 ml bourbon
  • 1 oz/30 ml grapefruit juice
  • .5 oz/15 ml honey syrup (1 part honey, 1 part hot water, dissolved together)
  1. Combine ingredients with ice cubes in a cocktail shaker and shake well until cold.
  2. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass.
  3. This drink requires no garnish, though a grapefruit peel or wedge of the fruit does work well.

Recipe printed courtesy of

22 Replies to “The Brown Derby and the Challenges of Working with Whiskey”

  • Jake Gittes says:

    What are your thoughts about substituting maple syrup for honey in this drink? Sources differ regarding what the original sweetener should be.

  • Jake Gittes says:

    Had a version of the BD from the Robb Report a few years back that incorporated a royal shake with a swath of grapefruit peel. A nice touch of bitterness that I always felt the drink lacked.

    Also, isn’t there some debate about whether this drink should be made with maple syrup? Tried it. Didn’t prefer it.

  • Josh says:

    Big fan, Jeff. Wondering your suggestion for updating recipes that call for 1:1 syrups with 2:1 syrups? Thanks!

    • Just as a quick rule of thumb I cut the volume called for with a 1:1 syrup by a third – so I multiply by .666. That means if a recipe calls for a half ounce of 1:1, I try it with 2 teaspoons of 2:1.

      It’s all much easier in metric, but that’s too much for people who aren’t comfortable with that sometimes.

  • Ed says:

    I do love a whisky cocktail. And this sounds really interesting, I’ll have to try it. Thanks for sharing! Ed

  • Doni says:

    I’ve got to say that, in fact, my favorite variation on a whiskey sour is made with smoky Islay scotch–I’m more of a scotch fan than a bourbon fan. 😀 A few years ago, Laphroaig distributed a recipe for a cocktail called the Naughty and Spice: 1 oz. honey syrup, 1 oz. lemon juice, a pinch of cinnamon, and 2 oz. of Laphroaig Select (garnished with a slice of crystalized ginger) and it is an utterly fantastic winter cocktail. I have switched to Shieldaig Islay single malt, since it is still smoky but I don’t feel guilty mixing it. I also like an islay New York Sour made with honey syrup. I would consider such drinks to be variations on the Penicillin. Anyway, definitely both worth trying if you like scotch and whiskey sours!

  • Rhoda Gary says:

    What is the best bourbon to use??

  • Matthew Williams says:

    Seconded, although I put the blossom water in the honey syrup to sex it up a bit.

  • Bruno says:

    Two drops of orange flower water does wonders to a Brown Derby!

  • Linda says:

    I tried this recipe (with a bit more bourbon) and after sitting a few minutes it separated, leaving a thick island of ingredients floating in a relatively clear liquid. All of my ingredients were in date and I was using bottled grapefruit juice. Any thoughts? Thanks.

  • Nathan Young says:

    I’ve also been adding a 1/4 of lemon juice to my Brown Derby recipe for awhile, just to brighten it up a little

  • Nathan Young says:

    How do you feel about the Barbara East cocktail?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *