Drink of the Week: The White Russian

white RussianCocktail classicists beware, because this week we’re saluting the immanent blu-ray release of the Coen Brothers’ comedy classic, “The Big Lebowski,” as well as the historic Lebowski Fest cast reunion with a drink that not only contains vodka but which usually requires no shaking and perhaps not even a great deal of stirring. That’s not all, the White Russian is extremely sweet and seems to derive not from the cocktail heights of the early 20th century but closer to the mixological nadir of the 1970s. The fact that it was a drink simple enough for a stoner to love led to it being immortalized on celluloid in the aforementioned 1998 film with Jeff Bridges, easily the greatest example of the pot-driven comedy genre yet made. Next to James Bond’s shaken vodka martini, the Dude’s Caucasian — same drink, different name — is easily the most legendary of all movie cocktails.

Still, no movie can make a drink popular all on its own, and the White Russian’s appeal is obvious; it tastes like a frozen candy bar. Moreover, the fact that it contains a bit of caffeine and even some rudimentary nutrition also makes it a highly appropriate beverage, not only for achievers but for caffeine heads like me. No wonder that it was one of the first cocktails I gravitated to in my ignorant youth and no wonder I still enjoy it when the time is right. Sometimes there’s no time for a martini and a very sweet cappuccino to follow it up. Impact-wise, the white Russian gives you a bit of both.

The White Russian

1.5 ounces vodka
3/4 ounces Kahlua or other coffee liqueur
3/4 ounces of heavy cream (or somewhat larger portions of half-and-half, whole milk, or even 2% milk)

Pour vodka and Kahlua over ice in rocks glass. Add heavy cream, which should “float” over the top, or other dairy topping. Stir and proceed to get into endless arguments with your friends about whether or not urinating on a rug constitutes a Saddam Hussein-like act of imperial aggression.

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There are a number of variations on the above, of course. You can eschew the diary product and go for a black Russian. I understand that if you use 2% or lower fat content film it’s called a Skinny Russian, which isn’t awful. On the other hand, I can tell you first hand that going past half-and-half and into the land of heavy cream will make the drink all the more tasty, though perhaps not tasty enough to warrant the eventual heart attack if you drink these things on too regular a basis. On the other hand, if you’re drinking as many Caucasians as the Dude seems to do during the course of a single day, wear and tear on your heart may not be your primary concern.

Also, I have to note cocktail historian David Wondrich‘s recipe actually calls for the drink to be made in a shaker and strained into a chilled rocks glass. It’s not bad that way, though it’s hard to imagine the Dude putting in all that work. As Wondrich points out, this is a drink beloved both by very occasional drinkers like my former self for its sweet-as-ice-cream taste and for the most down and out of out-and-out alcoholics, for whom it’s often the closest thing they’ll get to a balanced meal. Yes, a White Russian is for all, but really it belongs to just one man.

  

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Drink of the week: The Old Fashioned

Old Fashioned As the name implies, this drink is perhaps the very oldest classic cocktail extant and, as with the Martini, it carries with it as much controversy and variation as you can possibly imagine. It’s staying power is no mystery in that it’s based on the fact that whiskey has some natural sweetness to it and, as Julie Andrews and the Sherman Brothers remind us, just a very literal spoonful of sugar really does help that medicine go down

Oddly enough, for such a simple drink, it’s one that only the best bartenders we’ve met seem to have mastered. On the other hand, as “Mad Men” viewers will remember from one particular episode, Don Draper has, too.

The Old Fashioned

2 ounces of whiskey (bourbon, rye, or Canadian)
1 teaspoon of superfine sugar and 1/2 ounce water, or 1/2 ounce of simple syrup
Angostura or Regan’s Orange Bitters
Orange wedge and/or maraschino cheery (very optional)

Dissolve superfine sugar — regular table sugar or cubes will also work but are harder to dissolve — in water or pour 1/2 ounce of simple syrup (i.e., sugar water) into an wide mouth Old Fashioned glass. If you like, muddle (smash) an orange slice in the bottom of the glass. Add ice cubes, whiskey and bitters — again, we personally prefer Angostura for bourbon or rye or Regan’s Orange for Canadian, but it’s your call. Stir vigorously with a swizzle stick or club spoon. If you like it a bit diluted, feel free to add just a bit of water, though purists will disagree wildly.

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Now, as I alluded to above, there are a great many controversies about the Old Fashioned and what works best in one. Don Draper and I are quite partial to the muddled orange slice and/or marischino cherry, particularly if it’s one of the very expensive gourmet cherries you’ll find at some excellent high-end bars. Famed politics and cocktail maven Rachel Maddow finds all that sweetness to be of the sickly variety and offers only a slice of lemon zest in a move that’s similar to the traditional recipe for the sazerac, a drink we’ll be covering later. She also uses a sugar cube and a muddler rather than my preferred choice of using superfine sugar or simple syrup for an easier sugar distribution, as well as soda water. Esquire‘s resident cocktail historian, David Wondrich, is of a similar mind.

I will say that I haven’t tried using soda water in the tiny quantities that Ms. Maddow does, nor have I tried one with as little ice, but I will be givingĀ  the Maddow/Wondrich historical version a shot soon enough. It might be a bit strong for most people, but since Wondrich and Maddow suggest two of my favorite products — Canadian Club and Rittenhouse Rye (100 proof — yes, sir!) — I’m optimistic that this originalist take might just work as well.

On the the other hand, while I’ve been known to (gasp!) water my Old Fashioneds with just an additional splash or two, using a significant amount of soda water for this purpose is a big no-no, though it’s standard practice at many bars. Moreover, do not use maraschino “juice” in place of sugar/simple syrup, also standard practice at a lot of watering holes. To be scientific about it, it comes out way icky that way. I think me, Maddow, Wondrich, and even Draper would agree about that.

  

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