The Brown Derby reigns as the lone West Coast cocktail to grace our menu. It balances the tartness of its grapefruit with the sweetness of honey, while somehow maintaining the spirit-forward punch of its liquor. If you like bourbon, it’s hard not to love this cocktail.
Between the bourbon and the “derby” in the name, it might remind you of Kentucky, but the Brown Derby is actually a tried-and-true concoction from Los Angeles, California. Its name comes from a peculiarly shaped restaurant, the Brown Derby, that opened in 1926. As the name suggests, the restaurant was indeed shaped like a big, brown derby hat.
While the name comes from the restaurant, the drink itself does not. It was reportedly conceived at the Vendôme Club nearby, an establishment opened in 1933, seven months before the end of Prohibition. The recipe was included in a cocktail book called Hollywood Cocktails that same year. However, there is evidence that the cocktail was already in existence years earlier.
Its name comes from a peculiarly shaped restaurant, the Brown Derby, that opened in 1926. As the name suggests, the restaurant was indeed shaped like a big, brown derby hat.
In 1930, now legendary bartender of London’s Savoy Hotel, Harry Craddock, compiled 750 recipes of the time and published The Savoy Cocktail Book. It’s the primary source for many classic recipes featured in today’s craft cocktail bars, including ours. One such recipe featured Scotch whisky, honey, and grapefruit juice was named the De Rigueur. Whether the two drinks were dreamed up independently or the Los Angeles bartender saw the De Rigueur recipe and slapped a new name on it, we may never know.
The unique shape of the original Brown Derby restaurant certainly helped propel it to success and several other locations soon popped up. It’s really the second restaurant, the Hollywood Brown Derby, located right next to the Hollywood studios, that was the booming success. It opened on Valentine’s Day in 1929, the same exact day as the famous massacre across the country in Chicago. Even without the hat-based architecture, the restaurant quickly became a go-to eatery for Hollywood’s biggest stars.
It was at the Hollywood Brown Derby that Clark Gable reportedly proposed to his third wife, Carole Lombard. It was a regular haunt for Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons, two of Hollywood’s preeminent gossip columnists. It was also heavily featured in a memorable episode of I Love Lucy. The Hollywood Brown Derby was a Los Angeles institution until its closure and demolition in the 1980s.
This cocktail isn’t even the only culinary creation to claim the Brown Derby as part of its story. The Cobb salad was reportedly created there and Shirley Temple herself claimed that her namesake mocktail (which she didn’t like) was, as well. Something about the Brown Derby just seems to inspire!