In defense of cream cocktails

Do not skip the dusting on nutmeg on your Brandy Alexander.
Do not skip the dusting on nutmeg on your Brandy Alexander.
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Cream is not an intuitive mixer for alcohol, as lime juice and ginger ale are. You might try a creamy cocktail as a kitschy throwback, or make one for a themed party, but how often do you crave what amounts to a boozy milkshake? At least that was my thinking, until I read about the history of the Brandy Alexander in 3-Ingredient Cocktails by Robert Simonson.

According to Simonson, Tennessee Williams was known to drink one before his daily swim. Evelyn Waugh wrote about them in Brideshead Revisited, and Kingsley Amis counted them among his favorite drinks, so long as the standard amount of brandy was quadrupled. Feist makes them sound moody and sexy, like something to drown your sorrows in at dim bar with a brilliant piano player:

In keeping with the three-ingredient theme, a Brandy Alexander is made from brandy (preferably cognac), crème de cacao, and heavy cream, with a dusting of nutmeg on top. “If you use a good, dry cognac, and a good crème de cacao, the Brandy Alexander is a very satisfying after-dinner quaff with a distinct spiritous edge,” Simonson writes. He offers a recipe for the Brandy Alexander and another for its suburban relation, the White Russian, which combines vodka, Kahlua and cream.

Curious to experience this “distinct spiritous edge” I tested both out, as well as an old college pal of mine, the Colorado Bulldog.

Short answer? A Brandy Alexander is a delicious drink, no question. It’s plush and boozy and feels fancy. This would make a great after-dinner treat in lieu of dessert or with some nice dark chocolate. The depth of the brandy and its considerable bite combine with the cream in a way that accentuates both elements—they’re somehow creamier and boozier together than either ingredient would be alone. If you’re looking for the perfect cocktail to enjoy while waiting out a winter storm, this is it. Slightly old-fashioned but surprisingly strong, it’s figure skating in a glass. The nutmeg sprinkle is reminiscent of spiked eggnog, but lighter and less nauseating.

Here’s the rub: When Simonson says you need good cognac and good crème de cacao, he’s not kidding. Mediocre brandy turns this drink bitter and ruins the balance, and high quality crème de cacao is hard to find (nope, Godiva liqueur does not count). Ask for help at the liquor store for this one. Cognac is a good place to start, though I suspect a high quality Spanish brandy would also be delightful.

Brandy Alexander

2 ounces cognac

1 ounce crème de cacao

1 ounce cream

Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker with ice, shake well, and strain into your fanciest glass (chilled if you planned ahead). Dust with nutmeg.

I also tried replacing crème de cacao with the hazelnutty Frangelico in one round and it was delicious in the same way that a Starbucks drink is. Call it a Brandy Annaliese.

The Big Lebowski made the White Russian seem like a laid back, easy going cocktail, rather than a stodgy oldster concoction, more Dude than dad (though I don’t recommend using powdered non-dairy creamer as the Dude does at one point in the movie). Here’s how to make it:

White Russian

2 ounces vodka

1 ounce Kahlua

1 ounce heavy cream

Combine ingredients in a shaker, give it a good shaking, then pour into the low glass of your choice, with or without ice, your choice.

I put on my vintage Pendleton cardigan and tried to channel my inner Dude, but I did not love this drink. It was just kind of flat and sweet.

I’m not going to judge you if you love a White Russian. But I will  try to talk you into trying a Colorado Bulldog, a drink I enjoyed a lot in my early twenties. It’s basically a White Russian with a Coke float on top, but that spritz of soda somehow really ties the room together.

I took a big, delicious gulp of this Colorado Bulldog before I remembered to take a photo.
I took a big, delicious gulp of this Colorado Bulldog before I remembered to take a photo.
Image: Annaliese Griffin

Colorado Bulldog

Put equal parts vodka, Kahlua and cream in a shaker, then strain over ice and top with a Coke float. Or just mix in a glass together, it’s a very forgiving drink.

You cannot mess this up. While the Brandy Alexander calls for really good ingredients and attention to detail, you can totally improvise with a Colorado Bulldog. No heavy cream? Half-and-half, or even whole milk, will work. You could use non-dairy milk, if you wanted—I bet coconut milk would be pretty delicious. Add more Coke if you want more bubbles or a drink that is lower in alcohol. It’s definitely sweet, but does not come across as particularly heavy. In a world full of boozy milkshakes, this seems almost restrained. You might even drink a second one.