A Short History Of Vodka Cocktails In The 1940s
Vodka cocktails were almost nonexistent and not popular till the 1940s. Except for the Bloody Mary, I can’t think of a single cocktail that contained vodka before the 1940s. What happened in the 1940s to change that? The Moscow Mule was invented in 1941, and its overnight success suddenly made vodka a popular spirit. Most classic vodka cocktails can be traced back to this period. Since Vodka had no history of being used as an ingredient, bartenders found it easy to replace gin with vodka and give the drink a fun new name. The screwdriver was just an orange blossom with vodka, The vodka Martini was just a martini with vodka, and a drink called the Russian Bear was just an Alexander with vodka instead of gin.
I can’t find a direct link between the present-day white Russian and the Alexander cocktail, but I get the feeling looking at many of these 1940s vodka cocktails and believe that the white Russian is a variation of it. Lucius Beebe’s 1946 book, the “Stork Club Bar Book,” mentions a cocktail invented by actor Nelson Eddy called Alexander the Great. The cocktail contained creme de cacao, coffee liqueur, vodka, and heavy cream. In David Embury’s 1948 book “The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks,” he has two drinks that resemble white and Black Russians. A drink called a Russian that was vodka and creme de cacao, and one was called a Russian bear which was a Russian with heavy cream floating on top. In his liqueurs and cordial descriptions section, David describes creme de cafe as almost interchangeable with creme de cacao and that they are very much the same. I don’t believe this is the first white Russian, but I feel its origins are here.
The Earliest Records Of The White and Black Russian
The first use of the White and Black Russian names I can find from the 1972 Trader Vic’s Bartenders guide. This is the first reference I can find of those drinks using the recipes we are familiar with today. Trader Vic’s original 1947 bartender’s guide mirrors the recipes in the Beebe and Embury books. I could also not locate the white or Black Russians in any other cocktail books from the 1950s or 60s. So sometime between the 1940s and 1972, the white and Black Russians we know today were invented. On the cocktails Trader Vic invented, he placed a large “TV” by the recipe, and neither the White or Black Russians have those, so Trader Vic must not have created them, but he was the first to record them.
Of course, what made the White Russian iconic was the 1998 Coen Brothers film “The Big Lebowski.” Hilariously thought throughout the movie, the dude, Jeff Lebowski, keeps drinking White Russians even in the face of danger and puts himself in harm’s way to protect his drink at one point. The dude’s love for this drink drove the White Russian to fame and turned it into a cocktail that was suddenly cool to order. Before the Big Lebowski, though, I don’t believe the White Russian was a cool drink. Everything about the dude is a mess. He doesn’t pay his bills; he smokes weed all day, his car is a clunker, and he has trouble forming complete sentences or relating to the people around him. The writers probably viewed the White Russian as a crummy weird cocktail made by a tiki chain during the 1970s. It’s not like he tries to make the drink well, either. In one scene, he uses powdered creamer and mixes it with his finger. Little did they know they would turn it into an icon.
- 1946 Stork Club Bar Book – Lucius Beebe
- 1948 The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks – David Embury
- 1972 Trader Vic’s Bartender Guide – Victor Bergeron
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