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The retro Brown Derby cocktail pairs bourbon whiskey with grapefruit and honey syrup: it’s sweet, citrusy and refreshing!

Brown Derby cocktail
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Here’s a drink that’s sweet, citrusy and just plain fun: the Brown Derby cocktail! This 1930’s retro drink is a tasty bourbon cocktail that tones down spicy whiskey with sweet grapefruit juice. It uses honey syrup instead of the traditional simple syrup, adding complexity and mellow undertones to the flavor.

Why we love this recipe: The Brown Derby is so much fun! Grapefruit juice is so refreshing in cocktails, and the honey syrup makes it so unique. We love it as a great signature drink for a party, or you can dilute it with soda water to make into a highball for brunch.

Ingredients in a Brown Derby cocktail

The Brown Derby cocktail was invented in the 1930’s in Hollywood, California. While you might think it’s a horse racing drink (like the Mint Julep), the name actually comes from a restaurant. The Brown Derby was a chain of restaurants in LA in the 1920s that were shaped like, well, a brown derby hat!

It’s very similar to a cocktail called De Rigueur in 1920’s cocktail books, the only difference being the use of bourbon and the quantities. The ingredients in a Brown Derby are:

  • Bourbon whiskey
  • Grapefruit juice
  • Honey syrup
Brown Derby Cocktail

How to make honey syrup

Honey syrup is simple syrup made with honey instead of granulated sugar. You can use any type of honey to make it, and different types infuse unique flavors. Use a local honey if you can find it! It brings in flavor nuance of flowers from your area. Here’s how to make honey syrup:

  1. Add equal parts honey and water to saucepan and heat over medium heat.
  2. Stir until the honey is dissolved (don’t bring to simmer!), about 1 to 2 minutes. Cool to room temperature before using. Keeps in the refrigerator for 1 month.

More cocktails that use honey syrup? Once you’ve made a batch, use it to make the Bees Knees, Penicillin, and Gold Rush.

Honey syrup

How to make a Brown Derby cocktail (basic steps)

The Brown Derby is a standard shaken cocktail: there’s really nothing more to the drink than shaking and straining! Here’s what to do, with a few substitute suggestions for equipment:

  • Step 1: Add 3 oz bourbon, 1 ½ oz grapefruit juice and ¾ oz honey to a cocktail shaker. Fill it with ice and then shake until very cold. 
  • Step 2: Strain the drink into a cocktail glass.
  • Step 3: If you’d like, a grapefruit slice garnish makes the glass festive.
Brown Derby cocktail

Add a squeeze of lemon if you like tangy drinks

Here’s an editorial comment from your resident cocktail experts! Looking at this glass, you might assume that it tastes bright and tangy. But the overwhelming flavor profile for a Brown Derby cocktail is sweet.

Grapefruit juice is less tangy than lemon juice and lime juice: like orange juice, it’s got more sweet notes. If you love tangy sour cocktails (like we do!), you may want to add a squeeze of lemon to your Brown Derby to add a hint of brightness.

Best bourbon

What kind of bourbon to use for a Brown Derby? We recommend a bottle of bourbon in the mid-price range, about $25 to $35 range for a 750 ml bottle. But you can go as high end as you like! Some bourbon brands we like for cocktails are:

  • $: Elijah Craig Small Batch
  • $$: Four Roses Small Batch or Woodford Reserve
  • $$$: Bulleit 10 Year Bourbon

Serving the Brown Derby as a brunch drink

Some people say the Brown Derby is a brunch drink: likely because it contains grapefruit. But we can’t necessarily say we recommend 3 ounces of whiskey for brunch! If you’d like to use it for brunch, we’d recommend diluting it with soda water to make it into a highball cocktail or a spritzer. Here’s what to do:

  • Make up a mix that’s 3 or 4 times the recipe below. Estimate that 1 serving below equals 2 servings of the diluted drink.
  • Pour it into glasses using equal parts Brown Derby mix and soda water.
How to make a Brown Derby

A few more grapefruit cocktails

Love citrus? Here are a few more grapefruit cocktails you might enjoy:

Frequently asked questions

What kind of bourbon should I use for a Brown Derby?

A quality bourbon like Elijah Craig Small Batch, Four Roses Small Batch or Woodford Reserve, or Bulleit are great options. Experiment with different brands to find your preferred flavor profile.

Can I use bottled grapefruit juice?

Freshly squeezed grapefruit juice is recommended for the best flavor and aroma, but you can use bottled grapefruit juice if it’s high-quality and not from concentrate.

Can I use maple syrup instead of honey syrup?

Pure maple syrup imparts a slightly different flavor than honey syrup: you can use it as a 1:1 substitute for honey syrup. Both are delicious options.

Can I make a Brown Derby with rye whiskey instead of bourbon?

Yes, substituting rye whiskey for bourbon will create a spicier and more complex flavor profile.

How should I garnish a Brown Derby?

A grapefruit twist or a small grapefruit wedge are classic garnishes for a Brown Derby.

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Brown Derby Cocktail

Brown Derby Cocktail

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  • Author: Sonja Overhiser
  • Prep Time: 5 minutes
  • Cook Time: 0 minutes
  • Total Time: 5 minutes
  • Yield: 1 drink 1x


The retro Brown Derby cocktail pairs bourbon whiskey with grapefruit and honey syrup: it’s sweet, citrusy and refreshing!


  • 3 ounces* bourbon whiskey
  • 1 ½ ounces fresh squeezed grapefruit juice**
  • ¾ ounce honey syrup
  • For the garnish: grapefruit slice (optional)


  1. Add the bourbon, grapefruit juice, and honey syrup to a cocktail shaker. Fill it with ice and shake it until cold.
  2. Strain into a cocktail glass. If desired, garnish with a grapefruit slice.


*To convert to ounces, 1 ounce = 2 tablespoons.

**If you love tangy drinks, you may want to add a squeeze of lemon to your Brown Derby to lend a tart brightness.

  • Category: Drink
  • Method: Shaken
  • Cuisine: Cocktails
  • Diet: Vegetarian

About the authors

Sonja & Alex

Hi, we’re Alex and Sonja Overhiser, married cookbook authors, food bloggers, and recipe developers. We founded A Couple Cooks to share fresh, seasonal recipes and the joy of cooking! Our recipes are made by two real people and work every time.

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1 Comment

  1. brenda says:

    we are trying this tonight ! will circle back and let you know