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Chelsea Green Blog

Libation: little water, and a Classic White Russian

On the eighth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me…a delicious cocktail recipe! This sweet beverage will be perfect for happy hour to start off your vacation on the right foot, or to mix up for family at a holiday party this weekend.


The following is an excerpt from Libation: A Bitter Alchemy by Deirdre Heekin. It has been adapted for the Web.

In a cold November, more than ten years after the Berlin Wall came down, Caleb and I arrived in the city of Minsk for the first time. We had to show hard-won visas and letters of introduction at the kiosk before they would let us through the secured gate. There had not been many people on our flight from Germany, so it didn’t take us long to pick out our luggage. Laden with our bags, we spotted Olga at the entrance to the gate. She was standing next to her father, Slava, whom we had only seen in photographs. Raisa, her mother, was not able to come to the airport as she was at work, but would meet us later. We smiled, and waved, and felt like crying.

By that time, Olga and her sister Tatiana had worked with us at the restaurant for several years. Olga had first come to the United States from Minsk one summer on the Fourth of July, armed with a five-month work visa. By accident, she showed up at the door of our restaurant looking for work; she even came to our town by accident. Both were happy accidents, and Olga decided to stay and complete her studies in America. Her sister, who came the next year, made the same decision.

We, too, had once been like them, foreigners in a foreign land, deciding to make a life far away from what had once been home. We recalled how for us, the idea of home began to change, one home replacing another, as first language gave way to a second. These things we understood. With Olga and Tatiana we shared this experience even as we shared hours of work together at the restaurant. We shared holidays, and arguments, occasional sadness, and much laughter. We became an intentional family, choosing each other for both obvious and private reasons.

Now Caleb and I were traveling to Minsk to meet Olga and Tatiana’s parents, to extend our notion of family, and to learn more of their Belarussian culture and language. Unlike the first words I had learned in Italian, my first word in Russian—learned months before taking our journey, and learned out of the desire to communicate during work in this other language—was the one word vada, water. The second word I learned was vodka, little water.

My own history with vodka starts long before my meeting Olga and Tatiana, and long before my husband and I even thought of traveling to Eastern Europe. I learned to drink vodka in college. I hadn’t developed a taste for beer yet, and I’d had a bad experience with a gallon jug of Ernest and Julio Gallo’s Hearty Burgundy so I would not become interested in wine for a few years. My parents’ inclination for Irish whisky had not lured me—my dislike of it decided when I was young and asked to take a sip from my father’s cocktail glass. It was strong and bittersweet, not to be my tipple of choice. I must have first tried vodka at one of those college parties where most people drink beer, and where bad vodka and cheap bourbon are served for those who don’t like Heineken, Rolling Rock, or Budweiser. My first experience of vodka didn’t leave an impression other than my liking the clean taste; and the liquor didn’t seem to leave me addled or incoherent.

Vodka became my drink of choice, and it was the drink I could down quickly and easily in a small shot glass and beat any drinking-game opponent without difficulty. I liked it even better when I could have it at a bar, doctored with sweet tastes like Kahlúa and cream. My preferred college cocktail was a white Russian. Who knew that someday I would board an airplane for a country where I had connections, a country named Belarus, which means “white Russia” in translation.

My fascination with vodka eased into other interests— wine, beer, and brandies—but a vodka tonic was my summer drink, the lime adding just the right amount of fruit. In fact, in my recollection, the only cocktails I drank were vodka-based: a madras with cranberry and orange juice; a Cape Cod with just the cranberry and a lime; a salty dog with white grapefruit. When I got much older I graduated to the vodka martini because I loved green olives, and to the vodka negroni because I loved Campari. I’ve never been a fan of the other clear liquor—gin.

Before arriving in Minsk I knew enough to know that Slavic cultures prized their vodka, and that vodka was often the bane of the depressed Slavs. They drank it in the morning, they drank it with lunch, they toasted with it, and they drank it with dinner. They drank it like water—their little water—a lot of little water.

recipe for classic white russianThis is the traditional white Russian recipe I remember. As with anything, the ingredients are key, and I recommend using a vodka made from milk sugars and that is very creamy in texture like the Vermont Vodka White made by Duncan. The resulting drink could be a nice liquid dessert.• 2 ounces Vermont Vodka White, or other vodka
• 1 ounce Kahlúa, Tia Maria, or other coffee liqueur
• Light creamPour the vodka and coffee liqueur over ice cubes in an old-fashioned glass. Fill with light cream and serve.

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