December 2, 2009

Happy Hour: Brown Derby

by Payman Bahmani

Brown Derby

Every now and then I come across old cocktail recipes that have little to no history or lineage to trace back to; bona fide boozy bastards, where all background checks turn out goose eggs. They’re listed in a few old cocktail recipe books, and if you do an internet search you’ll have no problem coming across plenty of sites all mentioning the recipe, but try to pull an Alex Haley and all you’ll come up with is a handful of weeds. It’s truly a wonder how some drinks become nestled in the rich tapestry of American cocktails without really having a story to tell–or more accurately, without a story that has survived the currents of history.

The Brown Derby is one such cocktail. Actually, two such cocktails (one made with Rum, the other with Bourbon), and they are the focus of this week’s Happy Hour because they happen to be great winter time cocktails. First, the one made with rum.

Brown Derby (pictured at top)
2 oz aged Rum (I used Mt. Gay Extra Old)
1/2 oz fresh lime juice
2 tsp maple sugar (or maple syrup)

Tools: shaker, strainer

Glass: cocktail or coupe glass

Place ingredients in a shaker filled with ice; shake well and strain into your glass.

Most recipes for the Rum-based Brown Derby call for an ounce of lime juice and only 1 teaspoon of maple sugar or syrup, and I felt that it was too tart and lacked sweetness. After trying various versions with different proportions I decided to keep the Rum the same while halving the lime juice to 1/2 ounce and doubling the maple syrup to 2 teaspoons. I found the additional sweetness of the maple syrup helped soften the tartness of the lime, and halving the lime enabled the deep flavors and aromas of the Rum to shine through.

I chose Mt. Gay Extra Old simply because it’s a fantastic aged Rum with lots of depth. It’s a beautiful golden mahogany color and has a good mouthfeel despite moderately thin legs (swirl the spirit in a clear glass then set it down; the resultant striping of liquor that rolls down the sides of the glass is called the legs, and they’re an indication of the strength, viscosity, and body of the spirit). It’s a great Rum that’s excellent for cocktails as well as for sipping neat or with one chunk of ice.

Given the use of maple syrup in this cocktail, it’s possible this drink originated somewhere in the American northeast, perhaps New England. But really that’s about as much circumstancial evidence that exists, and that’s certainly not enough to convict.

Brown Derby #2
2 oz Bourbon
3/4 oz fresh grapefruit juice
2 tsp honey

Tools: shaker, strainer

Glass: cocktail or coupe glass

Place ingredients in a shaker filled with ice; shake well and strain into your glass. Here I also increased the honey to 2 teaspoons because I used a higher proof whiskey, Wild Turkey Rare Breed Bourbon.

A little more (but not much more) is known about the Bourban-based version of the Brown Derby. Apparently it’s named after the legendary and now-defunct Brown Derby restaurant in Los Angeles. That’s about all I’ve been able to unearth.

Despite calling for different spirits, these two versions of the drink share a very similar flavor structure: both have citrus and sweetness elements built on a base brown spirit. This leads me to believe that one of these was the influence for the other. Which one? Your guess is as good as mine. Cheers!

*Got a cocktail question? Hit me on twitter @paystyle, email me at payman(at)lifesacocktail(dot)com, or simply drop me a comment below!

**Paystyle was born in Tehran and grew up in Los Angeles (aka Tehrangeles) before moving to Brooklyn with his wife and co-pilot Vanessa Bahmani who provides the stunning photography of Pay’s concoctions. Return every Wednesday for his weekly Happy Hour column.

2 Comments

  • Anonymous
    Posted December 3, 2009 at 2:54 pm

    What a perfect glass–could almost be an upside brown derby I would like a half dozen glasses–filled of course

  • Vanessa Bahmani
    Posted December 4, 2009 at 6:08 am

    I loved the maple syrup in this one, seemed so fitting for the holidays. I'm so happy about the beautiful glassware!

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