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What’s The Best Way To Make A White Russian?

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The Dude abides, and so does his drink, the White Russian. But the history of the White Russian stretches back about 50 years before The Big Lebowski was released in 1998.

EVOLUTIONARY THEORIES

This cocktail’s story is a tale of evolution rather than a moment of brilliant creation. During and before the 1930s, vodka wasn’t popular in the U.S.—or respected. In 1933, William Guyer, the author of the cocktail tome The Merry Mixer, went as far as to define vodka as “Russian for ‘horrendous.’” Despite the spirit's reputation in America, the 1930 edition of the Savoy Cocktail Book included four vodka cocktails. One was "the Russian": an equal parts mixture of vodka, gin, and crème de cacao. Gross.

Luckily, "the Barbara" was also included. This concoction is much more appealing: two parts vodka, one part cream, and one part crème de cacao. At the time, cream wasn’t used in cocktails outside of the frilliest frou-frou drinks one could find. After World War II, the Barbara was renamed "the Russian Bear," perhaps with cream's aforementioned reputation in mind. It didn't take long before "the Russian Bear" and "the Russian" began to merge into the same drink as bartenders experimented with ingredients, and the gin was thankfully dropped. Once again, this cocktail came to be known simply as "the Russian."

Other changes were at play. Coffee liqueur was growing in popularity. Kahlùa was first shipped to the U.S. in the 1940s and it quickly gained a foothold. Bartenders took to using it in place of other ingredients in existing cocktails, like crème de cacao or cream. With one substitution, "the Russian" came one step closer to becoming the White Russian we know and love today.

ALTERNATE HISTORIES

At least one bartender is given full credit for inventing the White Russian's sibling, the Black Russian (which is the same drink, minus the cream). As the legend goes, and as Fabulous Foods reports, bartender Gustav Tops created it at a Brussels hotel in 1949 for U.S. Ambassador Pearl Mesta. (Despite this story’s prevalence, there’s little historical documentation to back it up.)

At the time, Tops's creation would have simply been called "the Russian." It's hard to pinpoint when the two cocktails finally split their shared moniker, but some evidence points to the late 1950s or early '60s. As Esquire's David Wondrich writes, the 1961 Diners' Club Drink Book used the name “Black Russian” to refer to the cream-free tipple. In March 1965, a recipe for the White Russian was printed in an advertisement in the Boston Globe for Southern Comfort's now defunct brand of coffee liqueur, Coffee Southern.

The White Russian remained a somewhat popular drink for more adventurous vodka enthusiasts until the 1998 release of The Big Lebowski catapulted it into becoming a pop culture institution.

Nowadays, there’s a Lebowski-themed bar in Iceland with a dedicated White Russian menu. Lebowski-themed parties and festivals serve White Russians by the gallon, and a quick Google search for "Big Lebowski drinking game" yields tens of thousands of results—some less advisable to follow than others.

But even forgetting for a moment its connection with The Dude, the White Russian is delicious, decadent, and still packs a punch.

HIT THE LAB

3/4 oz. heavy cream
3/4 oz. Kahlùa (or other coffee liqueur)
1 and 1/2 oz. vodka

Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker. Add ice, and shake until chilled through. Strain into a chilled Old Fashioned glass (or over ice, if you prefer).

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What's the Right Way to Make a Sazerac?
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If you pronounce New Orleans "New Or-leens," or if you can’t get enough of those Big Ass Beers sold on Bourbon Street, you’re probably not actually from New Orleans. But if you’re feeling adventurous and missing the Big Easy, a Sazerac might be just what the doctor ordered. 

‘Tails and Stories

A few hundred years ago, you might have actually gotten a doctor’s order for a Sazerac. One of the drink's origin stories claims that it was invented by New Orleans apothecary Antoine Amedie Peychaud. According to this tale, Mr. Peychaud mixed up the drink with his eponymous bitters and served it in an egg coupe in his shop. 

A more likely origin story states that the drink was invented by a different New Orleans resident (though in the same neighborhood). Around 1850, Sewell T. Taylor sold his bar to Aaron Bird and went into the import business. One of his products happened to be Sazerac-de-Forge et Fils brandy. While Taylor was importing, Bird renamed his bar the Sazerac House and began serving a house cocktail that featured Taylor’s brandy and, as the story goes, bitters made by his neighborhood apothecary, Mr. Peychaud.

In the 1870s and 1880s, Europe's grape crops were decimated by an infestation of American aphids. In just four years, French wine production was cut by 67 percent, and even the most dedicated cognac drinkers switched to whiskey. For New Orleans, that meant switching to rye whiskey that was shipped to the city down the Ohio River and through the Mississippi. Thomas Handy, who owned the Sazerac Bar during that time period, likely switched the drink's main ingredient. This take on the signature cocktail is the one that found its way into the 1908 edition of The World's Drinks and How To Mix Them, with the recipe calling for "good whiskey," not Sazerac cognac. 

The origins of the Sazerac’s name is vague. It’s possible that it was a nod to the fact that it was the bar's house cocktail, but it’s also possible that it’s a reference to the brand of brandy. In those days, “cocktail” referred to a specific alcoholic drink format. As put forth by The Balance and Columbian Repository in 1806, a “cock-tail” is “a stimulating liquor composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters.” If you wanted this type of drink with whiskey in it, you would ask for a Whiskey Cocktail. If you wanted Sazerac brandy (until the aphid plague, at least), you'd ask for a Sazerac cocktail.

Hit the Lab

Sazerac Recipe:

2 dashes Peychaud's bitters
.25 oz simple syrup (or a sugar cube)
2 oz good rye whiskey (use the good stuff)
lemon peel for garnish

Place the sugar cube into an absinthe-rinsed rocks glass. Dash the bitters onto the cube and muddle. Add whiskey and one large ice cube and stir to combine. Garnish with a lemon twist.

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Flickr User Janice Waltzer // CC BY 2.0
What’s the Right Way to Make a Caipirinha?
Flickr User Janice Waltzer // CC BY 2.0
Flickr User Janice Waltzer // CC BY 2.0

The Rio Olympics start in just a few weeks, and all eyes are on Brazil. To celebrate, we decided to focus on the country’s most famous cocktail creation: the Caipirinha.

In form, the Caipirinha is pretty much a Brazilian Daiquiri. It’s made from sugar, lime, and cachaça. Cachaça could be considered a cousin to rum, but it is altogether unique. While most rum is made from molasses, cachaça is made from fresh sugarcane juice.

Unlike rum, which can be made anywhere, cachaça can only be made in Brazil. Though it’s often sold unaged, it is usually matured in woods that are native to Brazil, like peanut and balm. As with wine, beer, and whiskey, different kinds of wood affect the product inside differently.

The classifications of cachaça aren’t based on the type of cask in which it’s aged. It can get a bit confusing: Spirit that is not stored in wood or is kept in stainless steel vats before it’s bottled is often called branca (white). But cachaça aged in wood that doesn’t color the liquor may also be labeled as branca. This category goes under several other names, including prata (silver) and clássica (classic).

Cachaça that’s stored or aged in wood is usually labeled as amarela (yellow), in reference to its color. These may also be labeled as ouro (gold). Envelhecida (aged) cachaça, a subtype of amarela, is a bit more involved: it’s considered aged if more than 50 percent of the content of the bottle has been aged for at least a year in a barrel that’s 700 liters or smaller.

Cachaça is the “third most produced distilled drink in the world,” according to Alcohol In Latin America: A Social and Cultural History. Though more than 5000 brands existed in 2008, it was relatively ignored outside of Brazil until the recent resurgence of craft cocktails. In fact, until 2013, it had to be labeled “Brazilian rum” to be imported into the U.S. As a result, it’s often mistaken by many people for being a type of rum.

Unfortunately, we don’t really know anything definite about the origins of the Caipirinha. Like the Mojito and the Old Fashioned, the formula was perhaps first used in folk medicine. Carlos Lima, the executive director of IBRAC (the Brazilian Institute of Cachaça) told Casa e Jardim that a mix of lime, garlic, and honey with a pour of cachaça was probably used in São Paulo around 1918 as a remedy for the Spanish Flu.

As the story goes, someone eventually decided to skip the garlic and honey. Then, to balance the acidity of the lime, sugar was added. Over time, the drink spread into bars, ice entered the equation, and it became the Caipirinha we know today.

HIT THE LAB

Like the Mojito, the classic Caipirinha recipe is quite simple, but it’s also been the subject of many, many variations. We’ve included the International Bartenders Association (IBA) recipe as well as a modern take on the drink.

Caipirinha
Modified from the IBA website.

2 ounces Cachaça
1/2 of a lime
1 tablespoon sugar

Muddle lime and sugar in an Old Fashioned glass. Fill with ice and pour cachaça over it. Stir and enjoy.

Prata B. (Puerto Rico Asta Ah Brazil)
Recipe by Luis Ramos, bar manager of Bourbon and Branch in San Francisco.

1 3/4 ounces Avua Prata Cachaça
3/4 ounce lime juice
3/4 ounce pineapple gomme syrup
1/2 ounce Pedro Ximenez sherry
1/4 ounce Punt e Mes
Grated nutmeg, lime zest, lime wheel for garnish

Combine all ingredients in a Collins glass. Add crushed ice and stir until glass frosts. Top glass with grated nutmeg, lime zest, and lime wheel.

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