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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

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. The unique thing about this drink? It uses honey syrup instead of the traditional simple syrup, which adds complexity and mellow undertones. Serve this drink anytime: it’s the perfect signature drink for a party, or dilute it with soda water to make into a highball for brunch.

What’s 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! (Here’s a photo.)

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 cocktail 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 different flavors. Use a local honey if you can find it! It brings in the unique nuance of flavors 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: shake and strain!

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:

  • Shake: Add the bourbon, grapefruit and honey to a cocktail shaker. Fill it with ice and then shake until very cold. Don’t have a cocktail shakerUse a mason jar with a cover instead.
  • Strain: Strain the drink into a cocktail glass. Don’t have a cocktail strainer? Use a fine mesh strainer instead.
  • Garnish: If you’d like, a grapefruit slice garnish makes the glass festive.
Brown Derby cocktail

Add a squeeze of lemon if you like!

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.

Love grapefruit cocktails? Try the Greyhound, Salty Dog Cocktail, Paloma, Hemingway Daiquiri, or Sea Breeze.

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

When to serve a Brown Derby cocktail

The Bees Knees cocktail is a sweet retro cocktail that’s great for sipping as a:

  • Summer drink
  • Happy hour drink
  • Dinner party drink
  • Guys or girls night drink
  • Cocktail hour drink
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Brown Derby Cocktail

Classic Brown Derby Cocktail

  • 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 (6 tablespoons) bourbon whiskey
  • 1 ½ ounces (3 tablespoons) fresh squeezed grapefruit juice*
  • ¾ ounce (1 ½ tablespoons) 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.


*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

Keywords: Brown Derby cocktail

More bourbon drinks

Are you a bourbon fan? Here are a few more of the top bourbon cocktails to have in your arsenal:

About the authors

Sonja & Alex

Meet Sonja and Alex Overhiser: Husband and wife. Expert home cooks. Authors of recipes you’ll want to make again and again.

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