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 Bijou

The Bijou. Last week, I invoked the literal spirit of Will Rogers to deal with the insanity that seemed to be sweeping our nation’s capital. As I begin writing this week, it’s starting to appear that some sanity is returning. That’s something we’ll be drinking to this week, with a genuine antique that’s approved of by many of the cocktail cognoscenti. I just wish I loved this one a bit more than I do.

I stumbled over the Bijou in my increasingly well worn copy of Harry Craddock’s The Savoy Cocktail Book, but it’s history goes back to turn of the 20th Century, we are told, when it was included in a manual by bartending legend Harry Johnson. On this political week, it’s worth mentioning that it also got a big shot in the arm back in 2009 when cocktail loving MSNBC icon Rachel Maddow made one for Jimmy Fallon. Alas, I never saw that segment and it’s been pulled from Hulu for some reason. (I blame the Koch brothers.)

I, therefore, have no way of knowing if the woman who accompanies many of my dinners — and whose old Air America radio show helped me to discover the classic cocktail spirit — introduced some twist in her preparation which made the drink sing a bit more for her and Fallon than it does for me. The version I’ve been making is worth is worth a try even if I didn’t love it to death.

The Bijou

1 ounce Plymouth Gin or regular London dry gin
1 ounce Chartreuse
1 ounce sweet vermouth
1 dash orange bitters

Combine your ingredients in a cocktail shaker or mixing glass, stir fairly vigorously, and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. This week, let’s consider a toast to pure, sweet sanity as we down this complex semi-treat.

****

The key ingredient in today’s drink is Chartreuse, also called Green Chartreuse to distinguish it from the milder Yellow Chartreuse. First featured here in star bartender Julie Reiner’s Shamrock Sour, this 110 proof liqueur beloved of cocktail aficionados and, apparently, Quentin Tarantino, is a prime example of a little going a long way. It’s a very herbal, very sweet, and very complex little bugger and gin doesn’t really stand a chance against it.

Since this is one of the 23 recipes in the Savoy book specifically calling for Plymouth Gin, I tried it that way a couple of times. Most recipes, however, call for the usual London style gin. I used Bombay Dry, which is what I have on hand these days, and I found it a bit crisper and more brash that way. Really, though, I  liked the drink about the same with both gins.

You may want to experiment with various garnishes. I tried a cheap maraschino cheery once, which didn’t hurt. Rightly renowned cocktail guru Robert Hess, who is obsessed with presentation to a point I tend to disagree with, calls for an elaborate orange peel, which does look pretty and probably wouldn’t hurt the flavor. I do have to reluctantly admit, however, that this drink really doesn’t benefit from shaking. Don’t ask me why, though I’ll never buy Hess’s argument that “clouding” drinks with ice crystals by shaking them is some kind of cocktail fate-worse-than-death.

Hess is also one of many to point out the word “bijou” means jewel in French, which to him means the drink is supposed to look jewel-like and, yes, be completely unclouded. Movie geek that I am, I associate the term with the frequent name for old theaters. Despite being namesakes, Robert Hess and I clearly don’t think that much alike, though he is absolutely correct when he adds the Bijou is extremely Chartreuse forward.

Some things really are kind of inarguable.Up is not down and day is not night though, as we’ve all learned, you can stop some people from claiming just that. I don’t know about you, but after everything we’ve been through, I could use a drink, any drink.

  

Drink of the Week: The Will Rogers

The Will Rogers. Cowboy comic, movie star, and political commentator Will Rogers was a genuine superstar in his day — think a combination of Jon Stewart and Tom Hanks — but  it’s his quotations that really sing to us right now. There’s something about the basic sanity of these little packages of genius that is a little bit extra poignant in a political moment where nothing seems to be on the table other than economic and political suicide.

“I am not a member of any organized political party. I am a Democrat.” I borrow that one a lot, but it seems like the rival party could pick that one up very soon.

“There are three kinds of men. The one that learns by reading. The few who learn by observation. The rest of them have to pee on the electric fence for themselves.” Remind you of anyone?

And here’s one that’s a bit more relevant to our topic here at Drink of the Week. “Why don’t they pass a constitutional amendment prohibiting anybody from learning anything? If it works as good as Prohibition did, in five years we will have the smartest people on earth.”

And so, for this truly, madly, deeply meshugganeh moment in American politics, I bring you a quite decent cocktail right out of the pages of the Prohibition-era classic, The Savoy Cocktail Book, named after a man who was a little bit better than decent. He was sane. The drink isn’t bad, either.

The Will Rogers

2 ounces gin, preferably Plymouth Gin
1 ounce fresh squeezed orange juice
1 ounce dry vermouth
2 teaspoons orange curacao

Combine the ingredients in a cocktail shaker with plenty of ice. Shake vigorously and strain into a cocktail glass. Toast comedians, for they are the only reliable source of political wisdom on our small planet.

****

Wikipedia tells us that this Plymouth Gin is featured in exactly 23 cocktail recipes in The Savoy Cocktail Book where, in fact, I first found today’s recipe. Leaving my decades long membership in the cult of the number 23 aside (thank you Robert Anton Wilson and William S. Burroughs) I admit to having been a bit confused by whether Plymouth was a style of gin or a brand of the gin.

Turns out the answer is, “yes.” Ever so slightly less dry and more fruity than the London dry gin most of us know, it’s made in Plymouth, a town about 190 miles from London from whence came our turkey-and-cranberry eating Puritan forebears. While there was once more than one brand of the Plymouth style of gin, today there is only Plymouth Gin; the brand and the style are now synonymous. At 82.5 proof, it’s relatively gentle compared to most premium gins, which are often closer to 90 proof or above, but stronger versions are manufactured. It’ll cost you more than even some very good brands of gin; I shelled out 28 smackers at an outstanding discount emporium out here in glamorous Van Nuys.

I made the Will Rogers using a good London style gin as well as the pricier Plymouth variety, and I have to say that extra expenditure might be worth it for cocktail perfectionists. Using very good, but more reasonably priced Bombay Dry, it was fine, but the Plymouth version had just that extra bit of, er, zazz to it. It’s a technical term for, er, tangy complexity, or something.

On the other hand, whatever you do, stay away from the alternate version of the Will Rogers which I found floating around a number of cocktail sites. That one contains 1.5 ounces of gin, half an ounce of dry vermouth, a mere tablespoon of orange juice, and a dash (let’s say half a teaspoon) of triple sec instead of curacao.  Yes, I have met a cocktail I didn’t like.

  

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