From Lowbrow to Highbrow: Elemental Musings on the Black Russian


From Lowbrow to Highbrow: Elemental Musings on the Black Russian

By Andrew “the Alchemist”

Thursday, September 30, 2010

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The Black Russian is an exceedingly simple drink, but what type of drink is it?  Using my usual method for getting at the elemental nature of a drink, I first ask which of the six elements are present.

The seven elements as I consider them are: aromatic, sour, sweet, strong, weak, succulent, thick.

The aromatic element could be argued about in the Black Russian.  Crème de café liqueur (Kahlua is but one brand) could easily be said to be aromatic.  Roasted coffee beans are decidedly-aromatic.  But, in compounding the Black Russian, the mixer does not add any purely-aromatic ingredient.  For now, I will skip the aromatic question.

There is no sour element in the Black Russian, so it is not a punch (which includes the sours).

The sweet element is present in the drink, all coming from the crème de café liqueur.

Being made of two liquors and ice, the strong element is very present in the Black Russian.

The weak element is present in the form of ice, which will dilute the drink.

There is no succulent element in the Black Russian, so it is not a succulent or a juice punch.

There is no thick element in the Black Russian, so it is not a posset (which includes flips and eggnogs).

So, the elements we have are: aromatic (possibly) + sweet + strong + weak.  The Black Russian is not drowned in the weak element, so it isn’t any grog-like drink.  This leaves it trying to be some type of sling.  (As has been aptly-shown by Wondrich and others, the Singapore ‘Sling’ is a mis-named punch).  If the Black Russian were aromatized by garnishing with freshly-grated nutmeg, it would then be mostly in the form of a (liqueuredly-fancy) traditional sling.

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The Black Russian Sling (on the rocks)

Vessel: 5½ fl-oz. (or larger) old-fashioned glass tumbler

Build in the tumbler

(If the following order is used, the heavier liqueur will mix itself into the lighter spirit)

→ 2 fl-oz. service ice (2 full-ounce cubes)

→ 1 fl-oz. plain vodka

→ 1 fl-oz. crème de café liqueur

Briefly stir the drink in its tumbler

Garnish by grating some nutmeg onto the surface of the drink

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I tried applying a different method to fully-mix it, and to get my desired amount of dilution – but then stop dilution there.  I don’t consider all dilution evil – it can open flavors.

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The Black Russian Sling (served up)

Vessel: 4½ fl-oz. traditional cocktail goblet (chilled)

Combine in a mixing glass:

→ 1 fl-oz. plain vodka

→ 1 fl-oz. crème de café liqueur

→ method ice

Stir slowly to mix, chill and dilute

Strain into the goblet

Garnish by grating some nutmeg onto the surface of the drink

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I then thought about turning it into a bittered sling – better known as a true cocktail.  Bitters will remove even more of the harshness of the ethanol than most other ingredients of the aromatic element..

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The Black Russian Cocktail

Vessel: 4½ fl-oz. traditional cocktail goblet (chilled)

Combine in a mixing glass:

→ 1 fl-oz. plain vodka

→ 1 fl-oz. crème de café liqueur

→ 2 fl-dsh.  aromatic bitters (Angostura or Bitter Truth)

→ method ice

Stir slowly to mix, chill and dilute

Strain into the goblet

Garnish with an authentic marasca cherry on a skewer

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Finally, I adjusted the proportion within the traditional, American 2-fl-oz. jigger to 3:1.

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The Black Russian Cocktail (3:1)

Vessel: 4½ fl-oz. traditional cocktail goblet (chilled)

Combine in a mixing glass:

→ 1½ fl-oz. plain vodka

→ ½ fl-oz. crème de café liqueur

→ 2 fl-dsh.  aromatic bitters (Angostura or Bitter Truth)

→ method ice

Stir slowly to mix, chill and dilute

Strain into the goblet

Garnish with an authentic marasca cherry on a skewer

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I liked this last one the best.  For now, I will leave it to others to try this same approach with the Rusty Nail, Godfather, Incredible Hulk, etc.

4 thoughts on “From Lowbrow to Highbrow: Elemental Musings on the Black Russian

  1. It’s a coincidence that you are deconstructing the Black Russian. I just read an article on liquor.com about the Black/White Russian. Just for fun, what would you say about the “White” Russian. Once you add that “thick” element to the drink would you call it then? What has aromatic (possibly) + sweet + strong + weak + thick?

  2. Hey Greg! I would call the White Russian a posset – especially if it were made with heavy cream and shaken to better emulsify the drink. Try making it using the same method you would for the Brandy Alexander.

  3. I am not sure, if you still apply the old categories.
    If you have a look e.g. in Jerry Thomas, you see, that he was often “fancy’ing” around [to make it look more complex?].

    Anyway – I am more a fan of a revised categorization; the cocktail then supposed to take several styles under his roof [this is hurting the cocktail much less than to call everything which is mixed a cocktail]: the Old Fashioned, the Dry, the Medium and the Sweet Cocktails.
    It would be now too long to explain in detail. But according to this, the Black Russian would be a Sweet Cocktail.
    The characterization of Sweet Cocktail is: a short drink [lets say less than 3 ounces], made with at least one liqueur, no sour element, no wine aperitif, might have a spirit, might have cream, might have bitters, only have a maximum of 5 ingredients.

    Further I am not really convinced, that ice can be counted as “weak”. Of course the dilution is adding water – but I guess, “weak” has a different meaning – like additional water, juices, etc.

    1. Hello Dominik,
      Thomas does seem to use the word ‘fancy’ to mean more-complex or more-fancily-garnished or more-fancily-presented. But, if you will read other 1800’s sources, especially George Kappeler, the word fancy will usually have a more consistent meaning. In Kappeler, it always applies to a drink at least partially-sweetened by liqueur or flavored syrup instead of just plain sugar (or sugar syrup). Where Thomas presents the Smash as being a Julep “on a small plan.” Kappeler presents the difference to be whether the mint is muddled or not. When compared to other 1800’s sources, I find Thomas to be unconvincing. Thomas was the first to publish, but that doesn’t mean he knew best.
      I just use the word ‘cocktail’ in its original sense to mean liquor that has been sweetened (even if just moderately), diluted and bittered. I don’t think in the same categories that you do.
      As far as the ice and dilution, I always consider them to be ingredients.

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