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 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.

***
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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