I can’t pinpoint the exact year that I first declared a personal White Russian Season, but I can tell you the origins of it. When I was a kid, my parents were not big drinkers, and neither were they particularly adventurous in their tastes. A bottle of Molson Golden with dinner was about as far as it went for either of them. This was partly because of the time and place—rural Western New York in the 1970s and ’80s did not offer much by way of variety when it came to alcohol, and Canadian beer almost counted as exotic.
But at some point in my middle- or high-school years, my father developed an odd sort of autumn ritual. He would buy a bottle of Kahlua, and at night, he would mix some with milk and add a scoop of Häagen-Dazs vanilla. When I eventually got old enough to buy booze, or have it bought for me, I naturally wanted to try it for myself. Somewhere along the line, I discovered that there was an actual cocktail that more or less mimicked the Kahlua-ice cream hybrid, but with more alcohol.
The White Russian, well executed, is a decadent combine of sugar, fat, and alcohol. You can mix the Kahlua and vodka either one-to-one (the standard way) or you can double up the vodka, which both dilutes the sweetness and increases the kick. Any potable vodka is fine, this is not a drink for anything top-shelf. Then you add your dairy, which really has to be at least Half&Half and preferably just cream. (During a brief vegan period, I tried soy milk. Not recommended. And if you’re going to slim it down with skim milk or something, just forget the whole thing.)
Anyway, I started occasionally ordering them, usually as an after-dinner or end-of-the-night drink. This often involved a certain amount of eyerolling or derision from bartenders or drinking companions. It is an inherently disrespectable drink, no matter how much liquor it carries. Some bars insist on serving it with a maraschino cherry on top, as if to emphasize its dessert-tray nature. I’ve even had it handed to me with a dollop of whipped cream.
Over time, maybe to limit both the eyerolling and the caloric intake (a White Russian is upwards of 360 per glass), I decided to put a fence around my consumption. And so I arrived at White Russian Season: from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day. The sweet self-indulgence of the concoction is in line with holiday cheer and lack of self-discipline, and its milky hue seems seasonally apt by the glow of a sparkling tree or a fireplace. (White shag rug is optional.)
The drink has achieved a new ubiquity in recent years, thanks to the cult status of The Big Lebowski. The Dude, the movie’s stoner Sam Spade, is rarely seen without a White Russian in hand. It gave a sort of hipster buzz to a fundamentally square drink. It was born in the cocktail lounges of the ’50s and ’60s, as a dairyland variant on the Black Russian. The addition of cream recalled the earlier gin-based Alexander and its brandy-based cousin. What all of them share is a slovenly loucheness—they’re the kind of cocktails your embarrassing, sozzled aunt might order at the pre-theater dinner, en route to passing out during the second act.
But that, I admit, is part of the appeal to me. We have as a nation become much more sophisticated in our drinking in the past few decades. My mother, for example, has long since graduated from the Molson days to a range of American microbrews, Belgian beers, and British ales. Holiday parties that everyone used to bring Merlot or Chardonnay to now offer wine tables laden with Pinots, Tempranillos, Shirazes, Monastrells. Bourbon drinkers argue over their favorite small-batch labels.
As someone who enjoys good beer, wine, and whiskey, I am glad for all of this. But I am also happy, one month (or so) each year, to give in to the elemental pleasures of sugar, fat, and alcohol. ’Tis, after all, the season.