Some parents take what you might call a "European approach" to giving their kids alcohol: Start it early, in moderation, as to normalize their progeny's attitudes toward booze. My parents—not so much. Underage alcohol consumption wasn't generally encouraged, and no one in my family really drank all that much, so the topic was mostly moot. But every once in a while, the restrictions were loosened, and that's when I came to know the White Russian.
We were on a family ski trip (I can't remember where—Colorado when business was flush, otherwise the man-made slopes of Wisconsin), eating in a saloon-style steak joint, all cowboy boots and distressed leather trimmings. My dad ordered a when-in-Rome cocktail, and the waiter looked at me expectantly. I was 14 and just starting to sneak illicit substances into my body. The combination of the waiter's apparent lack of concern over my obvious youth (perhaps he was European) and my dad's vacation vibes compelled me to go for it. I chose a White Russian, because a more worldly friend had described it as a milk shake with alcohol; that sounded about right for my palate.
The waiter simply nodded and walked off; my dad eyed me suspiciously. But he let it slide, commenting only that I should be careful, because they're stronger than they look. Whether he realized it or not, this complicit acceptance of my alcohol consumption in some ways marked the start of my long, awkward passage to adulthood, or maybe I'm just looking back at things with Kahlúa-tinted glasses. Point is, I got the drink and managed to stay upright for the remainder of the evening.
And I did so repeatedly over the next decade, at house parties and college-era Big Lebowski screenings, and occasionally at dive bars in the East Village. For a while, White Russians enjoyed a certain kind of arch-hipster credibility—so lame they're cool. Cocktail historian David Wondrich likes to point out that White Russians have "one foot planted firmly among the folks who never drink, the other among those who always do." And he's right: They go down alarmingly smoothly, despite containing nearly twice as much alcohol as not. They have no storied history, no great tradition except perhaps the one of innovation; there are dozens of variations on record, with names like Black Russians, Skinny Russians, Dirty Russians, Blind Russians and more (look 'em up). They're not even Russian—the name simply refers to the fact that they contain vodka.
At some point and with little notice, White Russians excused themselves from my cocktail roster. I hadn't had one in years until the subject came up at a recent editorial meeting, and my nostalgia kicked into overdrive. I volunteered to revisit the drink for the sake of the story and skedaddled to the test kitchen to shake up the mix of vodka, Kahlúa and cream (see the recipe). I'd be lying if I said the first sip was a revelation—after all these years, it still pretty much tastes like an alcoholic milk shake.
I drained the thing. They are, as my father had warned, stronger than they look, and soon, I was tipsy in the middle of the workday, grinning like a fool. White Russians will do that to you, then, now and always.
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