Friday, June 21, 2013

Cocktail of the Week: The Brown Derby

Let’s head to California for this next libation, even though doing so is probably incorrect. A drink called the De Rigueur with the virtually identical recipe appears in Harry Craddock’s The Savoy Cocktail Book and therefore predates this one, but honestly, I’ve talked about Harry enough. It’s the first day of summer and it’s still overcast in Seattle. I could use a little sun. So we’re sticking with the version appearing in the 1933 collection Hollywood Cocktails by Buzza & Cardozo. (Purists will point out that there’s even a second, very different drink called the Brown Derby. Considering the Hollywood connection, maybe it was a reboot of this one.)

Our Brown Derby is indeed named after Los Angeles’ famed hat-shaped eatery, but it wasn’t created there. The drink was born in the Vendôme Club, operated by nightlife impresario Billy Wilkerson. Wilkerson is one of those characters about whom enough can never be written. He started the Hollywood Reporter, using the paper’s gossip columns to stir interest in his clubs like the Trocadero and Ciro’s. He broke ground on the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas only to be muscled out by partner Bugsy Siegel. He discovered Lana Turner at a soda fountain.

The Vendôme became the first place where one had to lunch in Hollywood, an essential venue where luminaries went to see and be seen. It was at the Vendôme that Louella Parsons learned about the pending split between Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, a landmark divorce in that both parties had cocktails named after them. Many spirits historians note that the Vendôme dubbed this drink after its neighbor then cite the original Brown Derby on Wilshire Boulevard. But given the Vendôme’s location on Sunset the more likely namesake is the Derby’s second outpost on Vine Street, alleged birthplace of the Cobb Salad.

The cocktail is basically a showbiz sour – spirit, sweetener, citrus – with the elements given additional pizzazz. Bourbon and honey are perfectly cast opposite each other, while above them grapefruit walks a tart tightrope. The recipe below comes from Jim Meehan’s The PDT Cocktail Book, as does the stronger-than-usual formula for honey syrup: a 2:1 ratio of honey to water, simmered over medium heat until the honey dissolves. If you’re going to include a flavor as distinctive as honey, you might as well taste it.

The Brown Derby

2 oz. bourbon
1 oz. grapefruit juice
¾ oz. honey syrup

Shake. Strain. No garnish.