Down the Hatch: The Stork Club and the Brown Derby

by Vince Keenan

The current cocktail renaissance comes garnished with nostalgia, a longing for the bygone era when drinks were poured as part of an evening out in sophisticated nightclubs. No amount of speakeasy trappings and period bartender facial hair can recapture the glamour of yesteryear’s storied watering holes. The next best thing is to enjoy libations named in their honor.

Down the Hatch cover 1

Swells of all stripes, denizens from every destination demimonde, frequented the Stork Club. Columnist Walter Winchell, who had his own table there, dubbed the East 53rd Street nightspot “New York’s New Yorkiest place.” The club was the domain of ex-bootlegger Sherman Billingsley, who started the joint with the not-entirely-secret backing of organized crime figures and bought them out after some minor difficulties including his being kidnapped by their rival Mad Dog Coll. Writer Jerome Charyn branded Billingsley “a nebbish from Enid, Oklahoma” and “a snob” who cribbed everything he knew about the hospitality business from legendary hostess Texas Guinan – except her democratic attitude toward her guests. Billingsley could only abide the rubbing of A-list elbows, and his velvet rope mindset helped make him a celebrity in his own right; he turns up as a character in the 1945 Betty Hutton comedy named for his establishment as well as the novel The Murder at the Stork Club written by Laura  author Vera Caspary, and he hosted a television show in the 1950s.

The Stork’s signature cocktail has been credited to several of the club’s staffers. There’s a hint of the speakeasy about it owing to the amount of orange juice; during Prohibition, many a bad batch of gin was made palatable with an abundance of citrus. That big jolt of juice, the kind of flash Billingsley himself no doubt appreciated, gives the drink a bouncy buoyancy that plays well at brunch. The original recipe calls for gin but try substituting the sweeter and more substantial Old Tom, which matches up better with the citrus. Sip this cocktail and pretend you’re a Stork Club regular like J. Edgar Hoover, who probably never drank one of these.

We head to California for the Brown Derby, even though doing so may be incorrect. A drink with the virtually identical recipe called the De Rigueur predates this one, and there’s a second concoction with the same name consisting of rum, lime juice and maple syrup, its provenance unknown.

This Brown Derby, featured in the 1933 collection Hollywood Cocktails by Buzza & Cardozo, is indeed named after Los Angeles’ famed hat-shaped eatery – but it wasn’t created there. The drink was born in the Vendôme Club, operated by nightlife impresario Billy Wilkerson. A larger-than life character, Wilkerson started The Hollywood Reporter, using the paper’s gossip columns to stir interest in his clubs like the Trocadero and Ciro’s. He broke ground on the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas only to be muscled out by partner Bugsy Siegel. He discovered Lana Turner at a soda fountain.

The Vendôme became the first place where one had to lunch in Hollywood, a venue where luminaries went to see and be seen. It was at the Vendôme that Louella Parsons learned about the pending split between Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, a landmark divorce in that both parties had cocktails named after them. Many spirits historians note that the Vendôme christened this drink after its neighbor then cite the original Brown Derby on Wilshire Boulevard. But given the Vendôme’s location on Sunset the more likely namesake is the Derby’s second outpost on Vine Street, alleged birthplace of the Cobb Salad.

The cocktail is basically a showbiz sour – spirit, sweetener, citrus – with the elements given additional pizzazz. Bourbon and honey are perfectly cast opposite each other, while above them grapefruit walks a tart tightrope. The recipe below comes from Jim Meehan’s The PDT Cocktail Book, as does the stronger-than-usual formula for honey syrup: a 2:1 ratio of honey to water, simmered over medium heat until the honey dissolves. If you’re going to include such a distinctive flavor, you might as well give it a turn in the spotlight.

 

StorkClub

The Stork Club

1 ½ oz. gin (Old Tom if it’s available)
1 oz. orange juice
½ oz. Cointreau
¼ oz. lime juice
dash of Angostura bitters

Shake. Strain. Garnish with an orange twist.

 BrownDerby

The Brown Derby

2 oz. bourbon
1 oz. grapefruit juice
¾ oz. honey syrup

Shake. Strain. No garnish.

Vince Keenan
Vince Keenan is the associate editor of  
Noir City, the magazine of the Film Noir Foundation.  His book  Down The Hatch: One Man’s One Year Odyssey Through Classic Cocktail Recipes and Lore , collecting the essays featured in  Slate and  USAToday.com, is a Kindle bestseller.  He writes about cocktails and popular culture at blog.vincekeenan.com.  An ex-pat New York Mets fan, he lives in Seattle. 

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