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Cocktails

Skip the Nog, but Keep It Rich

December 22, 2021

Story: Brad Thomas Parsons

photo: Lizzie Munro

Cocktails

Skip the Nog, but Keep It Rich

December 22, 2021

Story: Brad Thomas Parsons

photo: Lizzie Munro

The season for creamy drinks is upon us, but a new crop of easy Alexander riffs showcases a lighter, nondairy approach to indulgence.

The 18-month period from the summer of 1973 through early 1975 became known in pop culture history as the “lost weekend.” It was a period in which John Lennon took a Yoko Ono–sanctioned separation from their marriage and split his time between Manhattan and Los Angeles. It proved to be a time of intense creative output musically, but was also fueled by late-night parties, drugs, and the discovery of what would become Lennon’s favorite cocktail.

The Brandy Alexander was introduced to Lennon by fellow musician Harry Nilsson. And on the night of Tuesday, March 12, 1974, Lennon took to calling them “milkshakes” at The Troubadour in West Hollywood. After downing a few too many, Lennon and Nilsson began aggressively heckling and taunting the Smothers Brothers, who were performing onstage, and, when security swooped in to show them the door, a scuffle ensued. Reportedly, slaps were exchanged and punches were thrown. “I got drunk and shouted,” Lennon recalled. “It was my first night on Brandy Alexanders—that’s brandy and milk, folks.”

The version of the drink that Lennon loved so much was first known as the Alexander Cocktail No. 2, a brandy-based version of the original Alexander Cocktail made with equal parts gin, crème de cacao and heavy cream, garnished with a grating of nutmeg, that first appeared in print in Hugo R. Ensslin’s 1916 Recipes for Mixed Drinks. The “influential and controversial in equal parts” drink, as described by David Wondrich in The Oxford Companion to Spirits and Cocktails, helped popularize the use of cream in cocktails and was likely named after Troy Alexander, the bartender credited with creating the drink at the New York City restaurant Rector’s for the launch of an advertising rollout for the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad. The frothy, cream-colored drink was a tribute to Phoebe Snow, the protagonist of an ad campaign representing the purity of clean-burning coal.

For much of the cocktail revival, the Brandy Alexander has mostly remained a foggy footnote of the fern bars of yore. You might still encounter it on a menu among the classics at certain bars, like Bryant’s Cocktail Lounge in Milwaukee, where owner John Dye makes a decidedly Wisconsin move by doubling down on the dairy with two scoops of Cedar Crest vanilla ice cream, dialing up the decadence with an additional scoop of fresh whipped cream. But if you dive a little deeper, you’ll find bartenders reconsidering the Alexander, countering its heavy reputation with lighter, alternative milk options and looking beyond brandy and Cognac for the base spirit.

Vegan Alexander Recipe
Recipe

Avena Alexandra

A rum-based, vegan spin on the Alexander.

Vegan Brandy Alexander
Recipe

The Grasshopper Lies Heavy

A mentholated take on the Brandy Alexander.

Vegan Brandy Alexander
Recipe

Pecan Swirl

If the Brandy Alexander and Espresso Martini had a baby.

“I think the Brandy Alexander is a true classic, and when it’s great, it’s really great. When it’s mediocre, it is almost always too rich or sweet,” says Robby Dow, beverage director for Brooklyn’s Grand Army. “I think most guests generally avoid heavy cream or dairy in drinks, but I think we should all embrace it a little more as a nightcap.” It’s fitting that Dow’s Hard Start Alexander is built upon the foundation of the bar’s beloved 50/50 house shot of Fernet-Branca and Brancamenta, created by co-owner Damon Boelte. “One thing I ran into working on this drink was that it wanted more Hard Start,” says Dow, who settled on a one-and-a-half-ounce pour of the minty, bitter blend. To that he adds crème de cacao and cream spiked with banana liqueur and vanilla. The drink made its debut on a special Fernet-themed menu this past Halloween, but Dow notes that it will likely live on as an off-menu call.

The inspiration for Brooklyn bartender Fanny Chu’s alternative Alexander, meanwhile, began with rum. Tasting Bacardi’s Ocho Sherry Cask Finish Rum, with what she describes as notes of “caramel, vanilla, orange and hints of dried fruits and nuts,” had her thinking of morning oatmeal in the tropics and an Alexander riff that played off the complementary flavors of oat milk and bananas. “Since it is winter and I always fancy the tropics, I had breakfast by the beach in mind,” says Chu, a brand ambassador for Bacardi, who tested several different banana liqueurs and commercial oat milks while R&D-ing her Avena Alexandra (avena means “oatmeal” in Spanish). “I knew I had it right when I was able to taste the rum, caramelized banana and oats,” she says, noting that the extra-creamy oat milk she uses offers a lighter Alexander experience while still packing enough fat to deliver the expected level of decadence.

Creating a dairy-free Alexander was a necessity for David Kinsey, who manages the bar at Kindred, a vegan restaurant in San Diego. Without being able to utilize egg whites, he turned to oat milk bolstered by coconut cream and aquafaba to provide the requisite richness. “The drink came together, but was still missing a bit of mouthfeel,” he says. “The aquafaba was the last thing added to the recipe and it really helped to bring the rich creamy base together with the spirits.” Kinsey’s The Grasshopper Lies Heavy supersizes the classic three-ingredient Alexander formula with brandy, two flavored crème liqueurs, full-fat oat milk, coconut cream and chocolate bitters. “While working on the drink, I couldn’t help but think of the Grasshopper,” says Kinsey. “At that point, it was tweaking spirit ratios to still keep the cocktail a Brandy Alexander, but with just the right amount of mint flavor in there for an added snap.”

Christine Wiseman, beverage director at Miami’s Bar Lab, was working on an alt-Alexander recipe around Thanksgiving, so it was only natural that pecan pie was on her mind. Coupled with her love of Espresso Martinis (she admits she’s “always thinking about or drinking Espresso Martinis”), her Pecan Swirl offers a hybrid between the two. The key component is an easy homemade pecan milk, which comes packed with a natural sweetness that marries the Cognac and rich coffee amaro.

While the Alexander might never achieve the same pop cultural renaissance as the one spurred by The Big Lebowski for the equally creamy White Russian, these recipes help carve a space for further exploration while still honoring the spirit of the original. So whether you’re a fan of the OG or prefer a lighter rendition, as the late Brandy Alexander–loving former Beatle sang on his 1974 album Walls and Bridges, “Whatever gets you through the night / It’s all right, it’s all right.”

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