Tale of Two Derbies (Brown Ones)

The classic Hollywood cocktail that never came within 3,000 miles of Hollywood

By Robert F. Moss

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When people write about the Brown Derby cocktail, they tend to invoke the glitz and glamour of showbiz, presenting it as “a taste of the Golden Age of Hollywood.” After all, according to the widely accepted history of the drink, it was created in Hollywood during the 1930s, the era of Greta Garbo and Douglas Fairbanks and Busby Berkeley extravaganzas. The Brown Derby looks the part, too—a blend of bourbon, grapefruit and honey with a decidedly golden hue.

There are actually two competing origin stories. The first is that it was the eponymous signature cocktail at The Brown Derby, a three-restaurant chain in Los Angeles. The original location was shaped like an actual derby hat, and its Vine Street outpost was a popular hangout for Hollywood movers and shakers. The other version claims that the cocktail was actually created nearby at the Vendome Club on the Sunset Strip and named, for some reason, in honor of the Brown Derby restaurant.

There's a slight problem with both stories, though: the Brown Derby cocktail doesn’t appear to have come within 3,000 miles of Hollywood at any time during the 20th century.

The people actually drinking Brown Derbies in the 1930s were doing so in New York City, and the ingredients—rum, maple sugar, and lime—were totally different from what goes into today’s incarnation.


A Hollywood Fantasy


Let’s start with the West Coast story. As more than one drinks writer has pointed out, the recipe for the Hollywood-born Brown Derby is identical to the De Rigueur Cocktail, which appears in Harry Craddock’s The Savoy Cocktail Book (1930). Here’s Craddock’s version:

De Rigueur Cocktail
1/2 Whisky.
1/4 Grape Fruit Juice.
1/4 Honey.
Cracked Ice.

Shake well and strain into cocktail glass.

Craddock, in turn, seems to have picked up the recipe from Judge Jr.’s Here’s How (1927). Judge Jr.’s version calls explicitly for “Scotch whisky,” while Craddock’s more generically lists just “whisky.” Did the De Rigueur jump the pond and make its way to Hollywood, perhaps brought home by ocean-hopping movie stars who discovered it in London? Or maybe the bartender at the Brown Derby (or at the Vendome) had a copy of The Savoy Cocktail Book and, being an American, naturally used Bourbon whiskey instead of Scotch?

Hollywood Cocktails (1933). It was the handiwork of George Buzza, Jr.,
George Buzza, Jr's Hollywood Cocktails (1933)

The answer, it turns out, is even simpler, and it all has to do with a rather odd book named Hollywood Cocktails (1933). It was the handiwork of George Buzza, Jr., an artist and entrepreneur who established the Buzza Company in Minneapolis and grew it into one of the largest greeting card companies in the United States. He sold the company in 1928 and moved to Hollywood to retire, but he ended up opening another greeting card company, Buzza-Cardozo, that published novelty books on the side. One of these was Hollywood Cocktails.

It’s an odd little 50-page volume, designed by Buzza himself and filled with sleek, stylized drawings of Hollywood clubs and elegant men and women sipping cocktails. The subtitle explains the theme: “Hollywood’s Favorite Cocktails, including the favorite cocktails served at each of the smartest stars’ rendezvous (whenever it becomes legal to serve).” That last bit is explained by the date of the book’s publication: November 1933, just weeks before Prohibition’s repeal—a time when distillers and restaurateurs and nightclub owners across the country were gearing up for the return of legal liquor.

No one had had any trouble getting a drink at famous Hollywood nightspots during Prohibition, and on the surface, at least, Buzza seems to have had no problem getting the recipes for plenty of these establishments’ signature libations. Hollywood Cocktails offers recipes for The Cocoanut Grove’s “Coconut Cocktail” (equal parts Italian vermouth, French vermouth, and dry gin with a slice of pineapple) and the Montemarte “Special” Cocktail (Bacardi, sweet cream, and a dash of grenadine.) And, right there on page 17 is the recipe for the “Brown Derby Cocktail.”

It looks pretty much the same as Harry Craddock’s recipe for the De Rigueur. In fact, it’s word for word the same as Craddock’s recipe, except that Buzza closes up “Grape Fruit” and omits cracked ice from the ingredients list.

1/2 Whisky
1/4 Grapefruit juice
1/4 Honey

Shake well and strain into cocktail glass

This isn’t just a coincidence. Buzza didn't actually roam all over Hollywood interviewing celebrities and their favorite bartenders to compile his recipes. Instead, the very first entry (the Absinthe Cocktail) and the very last (the Zazarac) are lifted directly from The Savoy Cocktail Book, and so are dozens upon dozens of the ones in between—word for word, from the ingredients lists to the instructions.

First page of recipes from Hollywood Cocktails, compared to Savoy Cocktail Book versions below.
First page of recipes from Hollywood Cocktails, compared to Savoy Cocktail Book versions below.

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Buzza, it seems, simply took Craddock’s De Rigueur and renamed it The Brown Derby. Curiously enough, in Craddock’s book, the recipe right before the De Rigueur is the Derby Cocktail, a rather odd combination of dry gin with two dashes of peach bitters and two sprigs of mint. Perhaps it didn’t seem sufficiently glamorous for a Hollywood hot spot, so Buzza took the next one in line.

And there the Brown Derby slumbered, tucked away in the pages of George Buzza’s eccentric little book, for seven decades. There is no evidence that it was ever served in Hollywood, whether at the Brown Derby or the Vendome or anywhere else.

Instead, it seems, the Brown Derby’s signature cocktails were brandy based. “Even the Brown Derby has a specialty,” the syndicated “Hollywood Gossip” newspaper column reported in 1933, “which it calls ‘Planter’s Punch.’ This is made with a jigger of brandy, juice of three limes, a dash of grenadine, and Jamaica rum floated on top.” (This note appeared on December 4th, the day before Repeal, and the column noted that even though Prohibition was technically still in effect, “the only thing that counts today in Hollywood is liquor.”)

Ted Haigh has also identified “The Honeymoon” as another of the restaurant’s signature cocktails, and it was made from Calvados (or apple brandy) with benedictine, orange curacao, and lemon juice.

The East Coast Derby


Meanwhile, back in New York City, there actually were people drinking a cocktail called The Brown Derby in the 1930s. David Wondrich turned this version up in the files of Esquire and wrote about it back in 2002. Apart from similar proportions, it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the De Rigueur. It first appeared in Esquire’s “Painting the Town” column in 1935, in which the unsigned author wrote, “Amen Corner of Fifth Avenue Hotel gave me my chance to imbibe a Brown Derby amid politicians and litterateurs, who also eat there.”

Four years later, the magazine published an actual recipe for a Brown Derby in Murdock Pemberton’s Potables column, and it goes like this:

2 parts dark rum
1 teaspoon maple sugar
Juice of one one lime

Shake well and serve

This rum-based drink appears to have had a brief vogue in New York. In 1941, a House & Garden article on rum included a picture of a bartender that was captioned “Mixing a rum ‘Brown Derby’ at the Waldorf’s Palm Bar.” It pops up again in various books and recipe collections in the years that follow, like Esquire’s Handbook for Hosts (1957) and Seagram’s New Official Bartender’s Guide (1995), but those seem like recycled recipes for a drink that no one was actually drinking anymore.

Reviving The Brown Derby


Fast forward to the cocktail revival of the early 2000s, when bartenders and spirits enthusiasts started digging back into old bartenders guides and resurrecting long-forgotten libations. As best as I can tell, the first person to come across the whiskey version of the Brown Derby was Dale DeGroff, who found it in Hollywood Cocktails and published it in his pioneering volume The Craft of the Cocktail (2002).

DeGroff’s entry also seems to have introduced the linkage to the Vendome: “This is from the Vendome Club, Hollywood, 1930," he writes, "and is named after the famous hat-shaped restaurant on Wilshire Boulevard.” But it’s not clear where that nugget came from. The Vendome Cafe (and it was Cafe, not Club) opened in May 1933, which was just early enough for Joseph Buzza to assign it a signature drink in Hollywood Cocktails, “The Vendome Cocktail” (equal parts Dubonnet, Gin, and French vermouth.)

After 2002, the Brown Derby made its way into a couple of other cocktail books, like Susan Waggoner and Robert Markel’s Cocktail Hour: Authentic Recipes and Illustrations from 1920 to 1960 (2006) and Bridget Alpert and Mary Barranco’s Market-Fresh Mixology (2008) as well as a bunch of cocktail enthusiast blogs. When Jim Meehan included it his very-influential PDT Cocktail Book in 2011 (crediting DeGroff as his source), the “revival” of the Brown Derby was complete.

Personally, I think we’ve brought back the wrong cocktail. Whiskey and grapefruit can lead to tasty combinations, but the honey flavor in the faux Brown Derby never quite seems to work for me, regardless of whether it’s from the difficult-to-blend straight honey or a water-cut honey syrup. The rum, lime, and maple version, though, is quite delightful, and you can substitute maple syrup for the harder-to-find maple sugar without doing any harm to it.

Besides, I’ve always preferred the stately brown wood of old New York bars to Hollywood’s gaudy palm trees.

A big thanks to David Wondrich, who shared a copy of the 1935 Esquire column with me and provided other guidance on the rum version of the Brown Derby.

About the Author

Robert F. Moss

Robert F. Moss is the founder and publisher of The Southeastern Dispatch as well as the Contributing Barbecue Editor for Southern Living magazine and the author of numerous books on Southern food and drink, including Barbecue: The History of an American Institution, Southern Spirits: 400 Years of Drinking in the American South, and Barbecue Lovers: The Carolinas. He lives in Charleston, South Carolina.