Drink of the Week: The Russian

the Russian.You know the White Russian and you probably know the Black Russian, which subtracts the diary product but leaves the Kahlua and vodka. Still, I bet the Russian, full stop, is unknown to you, as it was to me until just a few days ago.

I found this drink while pouring over my increasingly well-worn copy of Harry Craddock’s 1930 “The Savoy Cocktail Book” seeking something simple. I’m a bit overwhelmed at the day job right now — no, I don’t make my living doing this — and I really didn’t have the energy to even so much as squeeze a lemon or a lime. And so I stumbled over this little known relic of the days when vodka was a rather exotic ingredient unfamiliar to most Americans who mainly knew whiskey, gin, and probably the once ubiquitous applejack…if they ever dared to enter a speakeasy, that is.

I have no idea if the Russian — actually called “The Russian Cocktail” by Craddock, who called about 90% of his drinks the “the _____ Cocktail” — was an invention of prohibition-era booze marketers trying to popularize vodka in Western Europe and the soon-to-be post-18th Amendment U.S. (See the Moscow Mule, which came a bit later). I do know, however,  that mixing vodka with a chocolate liqueur and the right kind of gin makes for a drink that’s definitely sweet, but with just enough bite to be interesting. It’s also about as easy to make as a cocktail gets.

The Russian

3/4 ounce vodka
3/4 ounce gin
3/4 ounce cream de cacao

Combine your liquids in a cocktail shaker with a ton of ice. Shake very vigorously. Strain into a cocktail glass chilled within an inch of its life. Toast, Dostoevsky, who gave the world “The Brothers Karamazov,” “Crime and Punishment, and “The Idiot” and this perhaps tangentially related joke.

“Did you know the Russians are coming out with a new car. It’s called the Dostoyevsky?”

“Really.”

“Yeah, it’s available in a two-door and Fyodor.”

***

To be honest, this drink is about as Russian as that joke. The name notwithstanding, it’s neither the vodka or the gin that dominates this drink, it’s the creme de cacao. If you don’t love chocolate, you won’t love the Russian. That’s not to say the hard liquors don’t play crucial supporting roles.

This drink definitely works far better with a gin and a vodka able to stand up to a chocolate onslaught. My first time out, I used Sky Vodka, the last remnants of my No. 3 London Dry Gin, a flavorful and stout product, and Gionelli white creme de cacao. It was pretty darn delightful. Much less so, however, when I ran out to the local grocery story and decided to pick up a $20.00 double-sized bottle of Gordon’s Gin, which can often work delightfully in mixed drinks, including martinis. This time, however, it just didn’t have the gumption we needed. I was tempted to blame my more photogenic choice of DeKuyper’s brown creme de cacao for my insipid Russian but, on reflection, I decided the two chocolate liqueurs I used were about on par.

I next tried it with the Plymouth Gin that made the Olivette sing last week. Very good. Then, I tried it with 100 proof Smirnoff. Sweet, but strong like a Trotsky icepick.

  

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Drink of the Week: The Olivette

Image ALT text goes here.I’ve slipped up again in the holiday boozing department as there’s nothing particularly Father’s Day appropriate about today’s drink. Of course, there’s also nothing particularly un-fatherly about it. If dad likes gin, olives, and isn’t averse to a tiny bit of  anisette/licorice flavor, he might just dig this very sophisticated, very boozy classic martini alternative as much as I do if you serve it up to him this Sunday.

And I do kind of dig it. I wrote last week of my moody martini disenchantment and I’ve found this drink perhaps the perhaps the perfect antidote. It features my favorite part of the martini, the olive, but it’s balanced out by tiny proportions of sugar water and the alcoholic punch in the face we call absinthe. It does come from “The Savoy Cocktail Book,” definitely one of the big daddies of the field. I’ve modified it ever so slightly to better suit my personal taste buds. More about that after today’s recipe.

The Olivette

1 1/2 ounces Plymouth Gin
1/2 teaspoon simple syrup
1/4-1/2 teaspoon absinthe
2 dashes orange bitters
1 olive (mandatory garnish)
1 lemon peel (semi-mandatory garnish)

Combine the liquid ingredients and shake the contents. (You can also stir this drink if you like…but you’d be wrong.) Strain into a chilled, smallish cocktail glass or coupe over an olive. Mr. Craddock said  you should squeeze the lemon peel on top, and I’m inclined to agree. Toast the olive, for it is green, pimento stuffed, and full of life…or, you can toast your dad if you’re so inclined.

***

I find the Olivette as wonderfully sophisticated as the best traditional dry martini, yet with far more flavor going for it. While the simple syrup might seem a counterintuitive touch for a drink with an olive in it, it creates a very pleasing balance with the orange bitters (Reagan’s for me, as usual) and the very strong anisette flavor of  absinthe.

I’ve altered the Olivette from Harry Craddock’s recipe. Instead of my half and quarter teaspoons, the original calls for two dashes of simple syrup and three dashes of absinthe. I remain eternally befuddled by how I’m supposed to include a dash of something that doesn’t come from a dash bottle and too lazy/cheap to buy one just for the purpose of duplicating Mr. Craddock’s recipes. I prefer being a bit more precise anyway.

Even so, when I tried approximating the original drink with 1/4 teaspoon simple syrup and 1/2 teaspoon absinthe, I found the latter ingredient somewhat overpowered the drink. If you’re a bigger fan of licorice than me, however, you might like it this way. I liked the drink a whole lot better when I reversed the proportions and used 1/2 teaspoon of sugar and just 1/4 teaspoon absinthe — for me the ultimate example of a “little goes a long way” ingredient.

Of course, the primary and most important ingredient of the Olivette is gin, and not just any gin. Plymouth Gin is called for in, we are told by whomever felt like taking the time to count, 23 of the cocktails in “The Savoy Cocktail Book.” It is, as I wrote last year, both a style and a brand of gin. That’s because there’s only one brand of it available, so we’ve essentially got a monopoly on our hands. In this case, the monopoly works very nicely.

The ever-so-slightly less dry, fruitier flavor of gin from the English town that produced our nation’s ultra-abstemious founding Puritans really does seem to be the ideal gin for this lost classic of a drink. I say this with some authority because I also tried the Olivette with a perfectly good brand of regular London dry gin. It kind of tasted like a Dow Chemical spill.

  

Drink of the Week: The Fifty-Fifty Cocktail

The Fifty Fifty Cocktail. Tastes change, my friends. As a child, I pretty much only knew yellow mustard. As I grew, I discovered Gulden’s Brown, Grey Poupon, and various other not-so-exotic variants. I quickly learned to disdain the yellow vinegary and go for the brown and/or spicy. That ended last year when I suddenly realized that nothing was better on pastrami than plain old Morehouse or French’s.

It’s also true that martinis were the first real cocktails I ever routinely ordered or made for myself. I started out with vodka martinis, grew bored and moved on to dirty vodka martinis, and later dry gin martinis — all the while tacitly admitting that my favorite part of the drink by far was the olives. By sometime shortly before the first election of Barack Obama, I grew downright snobby about gin over vodka…but now that all feels so very 2013 of me. As I write this, I’m missing my old vodka martinis, and that’s weird. To be brutally honest, I’m kind of over standard martinis right now; my go-to cocktail basic is an Old Fashioned.

Still, when nothing will do but a martini, I do have a drink I like and it flies in the face of the lionization that the super dry martini has benefited from. So, forget you Hawkeye Pierce, see you later James Bond, ta-ta-for-now Nick Charles, bon voyage Luis Bunuel — I think I’ll miss you most of all. Here is the recipe for the least dry martini on the planet. Yes, the name is the recipe.

The Fifty-Fifty Cocktail

1 1/2 to 2 ounces dry gin
1 1/2 to 2 ounces dry vermouth
1 dash orange bitters (extremely optional)
Olive or lemon twist (extremely desirable garnish)

Combine the gin and vermouth with a ton of ice in a cocktail shaker or mixing glass. I know that it is permissible, even recommended by some, to shake this drink, for “The Savoy Cocktail Book” tells me so. However, modern day cocktail snobs insist you should stir the Fifty-Fifty Cocktail instead.

(It’s crucial, by the way, to remember that vermouth doesn’t last forever once it’s been opened. By smaller bottles and refrigerate it, by all means. Don’t let it sit forever even in the fridge or  you’ll live to regret it…especially with this drink.)

Strain into a martini glass or coupe with your choice of garnish. Toast your ever-changing cocktail moods.
****

I’ve made this drink quite a few times on my own in the past. Just as before, I found that my opinion changed slightly every time I tried it.

For gin, I used Bombay Dry and No. 3 London Dry; for my dry vermouth I switched between Dolin’s and Martini. For the all important green garnish, I started with a can of rather amazing tasting anchovy stuffed olives I bought at a fantastic Armenian grocery down the street from me named, what else, Olive Market. (Could the mysterious white substance you see in the picture be anchovy paste? I sure as hell hope so.)

I then switched over to an old favorite, Trader Joe’s World’s Largest Olives…except that they seemed a bit sharper and less mellow than I remember them. Maybe that’s because they’re now a product of Spain and I pretty distinctly remember them being from Greece before. I also tried it with a lemon twist, which resulted in a gentler flavor many may prefer.

One place where my taste definitely seems to have changed is that, contrary to past experiences, I found I liked this drink better and cleaner tasting as it was in “The Savoy Cocktail Book” — sans bitters, simply gin and vermouth. I also found a slight preference for shaken over stirred, which is also different from my recent preferences regarding gin martinis. (Vodka martinis should ALWAYS be shaken, by the way, if you’re going that route. I’ll go to my deathbed feeling that way.)

All that being said, I have a hard time coming up with consistent feelings about this drink. Sometimes it feels like a huge improvement over a regular dry martini, sometimes it feels like a sort of meh drink that doesn’t even pack the same alcohol punch as a “real” martini.

So, how do I really feel about the Fifty-Fifty Cocktail? Ask me after I’ve had my next one because every time I drink one it feels a little like a whole new drink. Could it be all the permutations — different brands, bitters or no bitters — or could it just be how I’m feeling? I’m betting on the latter.

A brief addendum: I just noticed that “The Savoy Cocktail Book” calls a Fifty-Fifty Cocktail that includes orange bitters a “Dry Martini Cocktail.” Confusion rules the world!

  

2013 Holiday Gift Guide: Booze

Walk into any liquor store and you’ll see hundreds of options. You can zero in on someone’s favorite drink when picking a gift, or you can get creative and choose something they wouldn’t buy for themselves. Also, remember that you don’t want to come to a party empty-handed, so get in the habit of at least bringing a bottle.

And for more gift ideas, check out the other categories in our Holiday Gift Guide.

Craft Beer Club

If you have a beer lover on your list, you can give him or her the gift that keeps on giving. The Craft Beer Club discovers exceptional craft brews from around the country and delivers them each month direct to you or your gift recipient. Every selection is produced by small-production, independent brewers who use only traditional brewing ingredients and time-honored brewing methods. In addition to traditional bottled beers, they also embrace the hundreds of small craft brewers around the country that offer their hand-crafted beers in cans. It’s a great way to enjoy craft beers and it’s ideal for the holiday season.

Laphroaig 10 Year Old Islay Single Malt Scotch Whisky

If dad, your buddy, your tomboyish gal pal or anyone else on your holiday list loves a very good bottle of Scotch, then consider this rather dandy, unusually enjoyable single malt. Outstanding on the rocks, with a splash of water or soda, or neat for you purists, the Laphroaig 10 Year Old is also more mixable than you might assume; on the other hand, it’s good enough that many will consider even the finest cocktail made with it a crime against nature. The website tells us that it’s got traces of salt and seaweed along with the usual peat and smoke flavors, but we don’t completely agree. It’s definitely got smoke – indeed, you might get hungry for barbecue after you take a good whiff and, yeah, that’s some salt in there, but that’s not all. Every good Scotch has its share of several indescribable tastes and smells of nature. We haven’t been to Scotland, but we wouldn’t be one bit surprised to find ourselves tasting the essence of this concoction in the clear cool air of the highlands. Cheaper than super-duper premium single malts but nearly double what you’ll likely pay for Chivas Regal, this is an outstanding gift for a true blue Scotch enthusiast.

Brugal 1888 Dominican Rum

If you’re in search of a bottle for the man or woman who’s drunk everything, Brugal 1888 is something genuinely new under the sun and it’s completely remarkable. An aged Dominican rum that thinks it’s a premium Scotch or Bourbon, it has the tantalizing, woody and astringent flavor you might get in very a high-end single malt, plus a hint of something that somehow reminds us of our dad’s old fake-leather chair. (That’s a good thing, believe it or not.) At the exact same time, it has a boldly sugary undertone that goes well beyond what you’re likely to find in the sweetest bourbon. We tasted more than a hint of maple syrup or maybe turbinado. Regardless, it’s delicious and probably not like anything you’ve had before. You can drink this on the rocks, with a bit of water, or neat. You can also put on your mixologist hat and go to town as this is a flexible beverage that won’t be out of place in an Old Fashioned, especially if you use real maple syrup in place of the usual sugar or simple syrup. High priced for rum but worth every gosh darn penny, this is one boozy gift that won’t be forgotten.

Cabo Diablo

This is the best new spirit we’ve tried in a long time. Cabo Wabo is known now just as much for its excellent tequilas as it is for its founder Sammy Hagar, and this new Cabo Diablo should attract many more fans. Cabo Diablo features a delicious coffee flavor and tastes amazing when you drink it straight. It’s sweet, but not too sweet, and it’s not think and syrupy like some liqueurs. So it’s a fantastic sipping drink that men and women should both enjoy. But better yet, it’s a tequila, so it’s also a great way to get a party going, as tequila makes everyone a little nuts at times. It is made with 100% blue agave Cabo Wabo Silver tequila, then kicks in notes of fresh roasted coffee, vanilla and chocolate for a striking combination. It’s excellent served chilled or on the rocks. With the holidays around the corner, this makes for a great gift for men and women, and it’s a great bottle to bring to a gathering to get the party started!

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Drink of the Week: The Clover Leaf (The Clover Club Trilogy Concludes!)

The Clover Leaf. It’s just about Labor Day weekend and today we have one cocktail that I’ve really labored over. In fact, if you’ve been paying very close attention, you’ve been following us through two different versions of an old and, I think, under-appreciated pre-prohibition era drink named after a social club of rich guys from Philadelphia with, I gather, pretty decent taste in beverages.

In the way of nearly all trilogies, today’s drink brings us full circle. I started this series out by musing how a Gibson differed from a Martini only in terms of a garnish, switching out the usual lemon twist or olive in favor of a cocktail onion. The Clover Leaf  differs from the Clover Club only in that it includes an actual leaf as a garnish, but not — and I’m sure this is for very good reason — an actual Clover Leaf. This recipe, however, does contain other alterations in the recipe from prior weeks, but I’ll explain about that on the flip side.

The Clover Leaf

1 1/2-2 ounces gin
1/2-3/4 ounce fresh lemon or lime juice
1/4 ounce grenadine (or raspberry syrup…but never with lime juice!)
1 egg white
1 sprig of fresh mint

Once again, combine all the ingredients in a cocktail shaker and “dry shake” the drink without adding any ice to emulsify the egg white good and proper. Then, add plenty of ice and shake very vigorously. Then, of course, you strain the resulting beverage into a chilled cocktail glass. Add the fresh mint sprig. I’ll let you come up with your own toast this time.

******
You might recall from a couple of weeks back that I found Robert Hess’s recipe from The Essential Cocktail Guide a bit much for my tart-sensitive taste buds, even with all that wonderfully frothy egg white. This week, however, I noticed that some recipes I was seeing online called for a full two ounces of gin instead of the 1.5 ounces I’ve been calling for. As the Clover Club is a relatively mild drink, with just one type of booze included in an entirely reasonable amounts, and as I had finally finished my enormous bottle of 94 proof Beefeater Gin and had switched to merely 86 proof Bombay Dry, it seemed to make sense to try the Clover Leaf with a tiny bit more gin.

What I found was that the slightly increased booze cut the tartness level just enough that using the full 3/4 ounce of lemon juice was now not only acceptable, but kind of delightful. In fact, while the vast majority of the Clover Clubs and Clover Leafs I’ve made using both grenadine and Torani raspberry syrup have also been delightful, the last one I made, using 3/4 ounce lemon juice and raspberry syrup, might well have been the best of them all.

A couple of additional notes on ingredients: I used Master of Mixes grenadine, which contains the oh-so-hated high fructose corn syrup but also has, we’re told, real cherry and (the key ingredient) pomegranate juice. I haven’t tried the other mass market brands like Rose’s, but I have a feeling that the more real pomegranate juice, the better and, as far as I can tell, they don’t have any actual juice at all. Feel free to spend a bit more on a more upscale grenadine or go crazy and make your own — it’s your delicious funeral. Also, a quick caveat emptor as I was just Googling around and found the Master of Mixes product for the criminally inflated price of $23.00 and above at some places online. I paid, I’m pretty sure, $3.99 or less or so at BevMo for mine.

Finally, it occurs to me that I haven’t really discussed the effect of the name-changing garnish in the Clover Leaf, that sprig of mint. I have to say that, even though I was using literally the freshest possible mint — no thanks to me, there’s some growing in the backyard of the Drink of the Week ‘Plex — it really didn’t alter the flavor of the beverage very much, give or take some nice minty fragrance. On the other hand, it sure did make the drink look pretty.

  

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