IT'S a jackpot, of sorts, as a little side trip unexpectedly takes us to the corner of Food Fadism Boulevard and Boy, The World Sure Was Stupid Before I Came Along Avenue, and all thanks to the Coens. Martin Doudoroff of cocktaildb.com, who describes himself as "a cocktail enthusiast and technology consultant":
Lebowski adherents may have vaulted the White Russian to icon status, but serious cocktail enthusiasts still deride it for being simplistic and overly sweet — a confection designed to appeal to unserious drinkers.
“It’s hard to think of a more boring drink, except, perhaps, when it’s spraying from the Dude’s mouth...."
Believed to date to the 1950s or early 1960s, the White Russian has no great origin story; its culinary precursor is the Alexander. Having been popular in the disco ’70s, the cocktail is, in the words of Mr. Doudoroff, “a relic of an era that was the absolute nadir of the American bar.”
Okay, first: we find it imperative that the modern American old enough to drive, smart enough to read, and emotionally stable and hormonally-balanced enough not to try to turn everything he learns into a pick-up line, refrain as much as possible from throwing the word "nadir" around indiscriminately. Perhaps this is in part because in the 20th century we used to describe the Reagan administration that way.
Second: this is not my milieu by any means, and I freely grant Tequila Sunrise, Harvey Wallbanger (both pre-Disco), and Piña Colada (definitely Disco, though in fairness you needed something to cut the bitterness of all that blow, I suppose), the iconic White Russian and alcohol-poisoning-in-a-glass Jelly Bean or Long Island Ice Tea. But nadir? From a guy who allows himself to be described as "an historian" in print? (I'm sorry, "a" historian. Does the Times even have a style book anymore?) Forget the Tiki monstrosities of moribund Fifties and Sixties Ring-a-ding-Dingdom; how about the intervening Eighties, with their penchant for junior-high smuttiness (Give me a Blowjob! Gimme a Screaming Orgasm! Har, har, har.) humping mechanically in a ménage à trois with boring sweetness and instant Rohypnolesque intoxication (both the above mix Kahlua and Bailey's; the Blowjob adds whipped cream, while an Orgasm requires vodka). How about the following decade of Jello shots, body shots, drinks mixed right in your mouth, and Frozen Margaritas? Who you callin' nadir? For that matter, adding vodka to Red Bull, or every conceivable cordial to vodka and calling the result an Xtini does not exactly strike me as having transformed the Naughts into the height of cafe society, let alone Paris between the Wars.
Only the rarest of palates achieves expertise before middle age! We suppose this to be doubly difficult at minimum if one confines oneself to a field such as Mixology or The Western, where classical standards are non-existent and the odds of actually learning something useful before the subject renders you unconscious are long. You, sir, have mastered the art of knowing what's popular in your own time. Congratulations. If you have not yet received your Cultural Gold Star for having found the Austin Powers series delightfully anachronistic, I promise to look into it, if you promise to leave.
Now, then. Full disclosure: my drink is coffee, where I approach Voltaire in daily consumption. My alcoholic consumption tends to good wine, good bourbon, or first-rate Scotch, taken as God intended. On occasions when reduced speed is desirable it's bourbon, brandy, or apple brandy with gingerale. I can handle, on occasion, a Bloody Mary early or an X.O. Armagnac late. Coffee drinks in cold weather, vodka and lemonade in hot, splash of grape juice if you've got it. The latter is my Poor Wife's regular drink, but she's a public school teacher and can be excused anything.
And I've got no objection to the occasional Bailey's rocks or, yes, White Russian taken as a dessert. What I do object to is the sort of unqualified snobbery (and basic fraudulence) which sneers at anything "sweet" and puts sugar in its tea. The palate changes around age 25 from the infant's desire for sweetness (sweet things, in the wild, are not poisonous) toward the complex and the bitter and the longer-lasting. This does not simultaneously make you a genius, and sneering at "sweet" amounts to an unpleasant combination of the reformed alcoholic's agressive teetotalling and the second grader's abuse of the kindergartner.
Anyway, let's go to the tape, specifically, the CocktailDB.com list of Top 25 Drink Choices:
1. the Vesper Martini, which owes more to the connoisseurship of action movies than gourmandise.
2. French 75. A fine old name, and 2 teaspoons of fine sugar.
3. Alabama Slammer. Aside from the refined imagery of the name, Southern Comfort, Amaretto, and sloe gin. Not exactly for diabetics.
4. Brandy Flip. Cream. Egg. Sugar. Clarified butter optional.
5. Smith and Kerns. A boring White Russian, minus vodka, topped with soda.
6. Cuba Libre. Rum and coke, plus lime. Not at all boring.
7. Apple Martini. Look, first, it's vodka and schnapps, which is what Nabokov might have called a parody of a cocktail. If you like 'em, fine, but the simple fact that "cocktail purists" did not scream loud, long, and sufficiently until this whole "X Martini" thing was eliminated is an indelible black mark.
8. Whiskey sour, which adds some sour to its sugar, and which the CocktailDB would have you make with straight lemon juice instead of learning to make a proper sour mix. Pikers.
9. Manhattan. Finally a real cocktail.
10. Alaska cocktail. Gin, orange bitters, and Yellow Chartreuse, which is the sweeter version of Green Chartreuse.
Et. seq. People talk dry; people drink sweet, and no one ever went broke sneaking some sugar into his Chardonnay (eh, Mr. Kendall? How's that, Mr. Jackson?). I certainly don't accuse Mr. Doudoroff of actually drinking these things, but a dash of perspective never ruined any recipe I'm familiar with.