During the Golden Age of Hollywood, when movies were black and white and everyone smoked, there was a famous restaurant, favored by celebrities and high profile characters, called The Brown Derby. What made this place memorable, apart from the fancy menu, was the building. It’s shaped like a big hat. Down the street from The Brown Derby was a bar who’s owner, ever fond of the popular restaurant, created a drink, also called Brown Derby, an interesting combination of bourbon, grapefruit juice, and honey. Not your standard sour, but it is a variation of a whiskey sour for sure, and it gives us lots of options, if we choose our ingredients carefully.
Let’s discuss honey. We all know what it is, it’s made by bees from nectar (stuff that comes from flowers), and is a wonderful natural sweetener. Bees get nectar from single sources, like some bees go for clover, others blackberries, others orange blossoms, and so on. This is natural, bees like what they like, and different flowers are available to them at different times of the year. When honey is harvested, all these different sources are blended, put in plastic squeeze bottles and sold in the supermarket as “honey,” however, you can find varietal honey, which is honey that comes from a single type of flower, and, for cocktails, this is where you should look.
Varietal honey is a great way to explore how different honey affects the outcome of your drink. Some honey is rich in flavor, and perceived sweetness, while others are more delicate. Some are floral, some are rich, and some are very neutral. When buying honey, see if you can taste as many varietals as you can before making a choice, then adjust your cocktail accordingly. We like wildflower honey, it’s very floral and has a relatively mild flavor, especially when compared to blackberry honey, or some of the other darker honey available.
Add honey to a cocktail in a syrup. Why? Try adding straight honey to your shaker and see for yourself. Working with pure honey is kind of a mess, so we make a syrup. Now, what ratio? That, too, depends on the honey, and how sweet you want it. We use 3 to 1, honey to water, with our wildflower honey, but you could make a standard 1 to 1 syrup, or even 4 to 1. Experiment with different honey and you might find you enjoy each varietal at different ratios.
We’ve discussed grapefruit elsewhere, but, as a recap, grapefruit juice has a unique bitterness that other citrus doesn’t. As with most things, some love it, others don’t, but what grapefruit doesn’t have is the acid of a lemon or a lime, or the sweetness of an orange. For us, no problem, we love grapefruit in cocktails, but there are times when a bit of acid is necessary, in which case, feel free to add a teaspoon of lemon to your Brown Derby. We like it without, and stick to the original bill of ingredients. Bourbon is the order of the day, and our choice for a Brown Derby is Bull Run Straight Bourbon Whiskey. It’s a sipper, if you want it neat, but it’s also a great mixer, and perfect for our wildflower honey syrup.
Sure, the days of Old Hollywood may be gone, you won’t find Bogey and Bacall at The Brown Derby anymore, or the bar down the street where the namesake drink first appeared, but you can don a fedora and pour a Brown Derby for yourself. Enjoy it with a Dashiell Hammett novel, or while watching Barbara Stanwyck torment Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity, because, why not? It’s a Brown Derby type of thing.
2 oz Bull Run Straight Bourbon Whiskey
1 oz Grapefruit juice
3/4 oz Wildflower honey syrup (3:1 honey:water)
Shake and serve up. Garnish with a grapefruit twist.