You Oughta Be in Pictures

Sample these Oscar-worthy cocktails from the big screen.

cocktails have been shaken and stirred in movies long before “talkies” and Technicolor brought us the vibrant sounds and colors of the craft. In film, a character’s beverage of choice is often defining shorthand for their personality, whether it’s James Bond’s famously “shaken, not stirred” vodka martini, The Dude’s White Russian in The Big Lebowski, or anything flashy and fruit-garnished in the Tom Cruise summation of all things 1980s, Cocktail. They’re the beverage equivalent of Jean Brillat-Savarin’s famous translation, “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are”—immediately identifying a character as rarified or riffraff, worldly or provincial.
And, it’s not just what a character drinks on screen that illustrates their motivation. There’s also with whom they imbibe and how much goes down the hatch. For better or worse, conversations over drinks are often metaphorical plot movers in film, cementing relationships or just giving the actors something to do with their hands while getting through a scene. Who can forget The Shawshank Redemption’s rooftop montage of the convict crew drinking “ice cold Bohemia-style beer” at 10 o’clock in the morning? In less than two minutes of voiced-over footage, the scene consolidates the resolution of months of intimacy, rage and conflict: “We sat and drank with the sun on our shoulders and felt like free men.” Whether planning for an Academy Awards-themed viewing party or setting up for a night of Netflix and chill, these screen-worthy sips are sure to please.

White RussianThe Film:
The Big Lebowski
The Year: 1998
The Cocktail:
White Russian
The Glass: Rocks

The Dude’s “Caucasian” White Russian:
2 ounces vodka
1 ounce coffee liqueur
1 ounce cream
Fill a rocks glass with ice, dump in the above ingredients. Stir with your index finger.

Or as The Dude (played by Jeff Bridges in this cult classic) would order, “Another caucasian, Gary!” Get out your bowling ball and comfy robe and free-pour this one in style.

Dry MartiniThe Film:
The Thin Man
The Year: 1934
The Cocktail:
Shaken Dry Martini
The Glass: Nick & Nora

The important thing is the rhythm,” says the character Nick Charles (played by William Powell) in the 1934 comedic murder-mystery The Thin Man. Coaching a trio of white-jacketed bartenders on technique, he further advises: “Always have rhythm in your shaking. Now, a Manhattan you shake to fox-trot time, a Bronx to two-step time, a dry martini you always shake to waltz time.” My friend Megan Jones, an LA-based cocktail shaker and multimedia maker, recommends this film—which was nominated for four Oscars and followed by four movies in the popular series—as a classic cocktail overindulgence shtick of the era, where William Powell and Myrna Loy (who plays the part of Nick’s heiress wife, Nora) “have about 80,342 martinis between them.” Careless elegance and witty repartee imbue the entire film, and it inspired barware manufacturers to emulate the couple’s preferred delicate rounded-profile martini glasses, known forever after as “Nick and Nora” stems. In a 2002 reflection on the film, Roger Ebert described The Thin Man series as pure entertainment (the specter of alcoholism aside), where “The drinks are the lubricant for dialogue of elegant wit and wicked timing, used by a character who is decadent on the surface but fundamentally brave and brilliant.” Like the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers musicals also wildly popular in the period, the harsh realities of the Depression are nowhere in sight. The Thin Man films, said Ebert, were “Pure escapism: Beautiful people in expensive surroundings make small talk all the day long, without a care in the world, and even murder is only an amusing diversion.”

Dry Martini
There are as many martini recipes—and people who believe that theirs is the only way to make a martini—as there are brands of booze. Since Nick and Nora Charles free-pour their martinis with abandon throughout The Thin Man films, this is a close approximation of their usual recipe. A typical Nick and Nora glass is rather petite; about a 5-5 ½ ounce capacity.
Into a cocktail shaker with cracked ice add:
2 ounces (or more) London dry gin
A very tiny splash of dry vermouth
Shake in three-quarters cadence until the tin is frosty. Strain into a Nick and Nora glass, and garnish with an olive.

French 75The Film:
The Year: 1942
The Cocktail:
French 75
The Glass: Champagne Flute

Food writer Joshua David Stein calls Casablanca “without a doubt the best film about a bar ever made.” The editor describes Rick’s Café Americain bar as the ideal allegory for exploring human nature. “Among the victors are gin-joints, shawl-collar tuxedo jackets like the one Humphrey Bogart wore, and love. On the losing side are Nazis, hills of beans and the perpetually hassled ‘usual suspects’ rounded up after every crime.” Being a convivial spot full of the world’s crème de la crème, the always-dapper barkeep Sasha serves Champagne in coupes, not flutes, to Europe’s wealthy expats. Rather ironically on the political spectrum, heroine Yvonne’s Nazi beau orders a French 75 cocktail in a pivotal scene. Historically, the drink was named after a WWI French 75 mm field gun, celebrated by French and American allies for its power, speed and accuracy all packed in an efficient and mobile design. Apropos for this potent cocktail.

French 75
Long before the French 75 showed up in post-WWI bar books, champagne-liquor combos (made with gin or cognac) were popular among the Victorian-era nobility and the well-heeled folks who emulated them on both sides of the Atlantic.

Into a cocktail shaker with cracked ice add:
½ ounce fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon fine granulated sugar
2 ounces London dry gin
Shake until frosty, strain into a chilled champagne flute or coupe. Fill to the brim with Champagne, and garnish with a long strip of lemon zest.

ManhattanThe Film:
Some Like it Hot
The Year: 1959
The Cocktail:
The Glass: Coupe
(or a rubber hot water bottle)

Once upon a time, the American Film Institute called Some Like It Hot “the funniest American movie of all time.” Through modern eyes, Marilyn Monroe’s character, Sugar, seems to be the sweetly naïve target of a long line of users, and the main male characters, played by Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis, slapstick-ily cross-dress their way through the film by tottering in kitten heels, with expected cliché’s of sexist hyperbole leading the way through the entire plot line. Lemmon’s awe of the über-feminine Monroe strutting away from him is palpable: “Look how she moves,” he gasped. “Like Jell-O on springs. She must have some sort of built-in motor. I tell you, it’s a whole different sex.”
Set in Prohibition-era Chicago and coastal Florida, Some Like It Hot is rife with bootlegged booze, mostly made with English gin and Canadian whiskey. Monroe drops full flasks from her garters, and the musicians of Sweet Sue’s All-Girl Band liberally mix—and drink straight out of the container—their heavy-handed Manhattans inside a stoppered rubber hot-water bottle to hide the contraband from their orchestra leader, Sweet Sue, and band manager, Mr. Beanstalk. During Prohibition, bourbon was available in limited quantities as “medicinal” bottled-in-bond prescriptions, culled from private domestic stock— or, more usually, bootlegged from Canada by distillers like Kentucky’s famous Beam family, members of which relocated north of the border during those lean years. In the film, Sugar always requests bourbon, which was often shorthand for sweet North American-style (versus rye or imported Scotch) whiskey.

The Manhattan
Manhattans stirred up in the late 19th century were originally made with rye, but those who prefer their cocktails on the sweeter side mixed theirs with bourbon, which was also the preference in Some Like It Hot. We’ll err on the side of presentation, here, and serve in a coupe glass instead of a rubber hot water bottle, as was the secretive mixing and serving vessel of Sweet Sue’s All-Girl Band.

Into a stirring glass with cracked ice add:
2 ounces whiskey (bourbon or rye)
1 ounce sweet vermouth
2-3 dashes aromatic bitters
Stir with a long-handled bar spoon 50-60 times, or enough to melt in 1 ounce of ice water. Strain into a coupe glass, and garnish with a maraschino (pronounced in the film “mare-ash-KEEN-oh”) cherry.

Vesper MartiniThe Film:
Casino Royale
The Year: 1967, reprised 2006
The Cocktail:
Vesper Martini
The Glass: Martini

Any James Bond aficionado worth their salt knows that the Vesper Martini—made with three parts gin, one part vodka and a splash of Kina Lillet—was named after the original Bond girl, Vesper Lynd, in Ian Fleming’s first 007 novel, Casino Royale (1953). Although Fleming describes several iterations of gin-and-vodka martinis throughout the Bond novels and later films, Bond’s earliest conversation about martinis in Casino Royale describes the character’s approach: “I never have more than one drink before dinner. But I do like that one to be large and very strong and very cold, and very well made.” Sean Connery was the first Bond on film to order a Russian vodka martini, “shaken, not stirred” in Goldfinger (1964), and clinched Bond’s partiality to vodka martinis in popular imagination. However, the Bond series films are notoriously promiscuous in their brand affiliations for alcohol (and, of course, automobiles) over the years. In both book and film, 007 affably imbibes myriad gin and vodka drinks, whiskies from around the world, various liquors served straight up or mixed into Juleps and highballs of all varieties, and most recently, Heineken beer. From personal observation, however, I assert he’s most often seen holding that ubiquitous beverage of international espionage: a flute of champagne.

The Vesper Martini
As described in Casino Royale, this is definitely not a Utah pour. Also, Kina Lillet (a version of the wine-based aperitif originally made with quinine) is no longer manufactured; using sweeter but more readily available Lillet Blanc with the addition of citrus bitters approximates the classic. This recipe makes one Bond-worthy beverage or two drinks for the average spy.

Into a cocktail shaker with ice add:
3 ounces dry gin
1 ounce vodka
½ ounce Lillet Blanc
3 dashes grapefruit bitters (or 2 drops tincture of quinine)
Shake tin until frosty, strain equally between two martini glasses, and garnish with lemon zest.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *