Mixing the Museum – The Black Russian

This is Perle Mesta. She just finished a Black Russian, which is also her cute little dog's name (at least in my world).

Welcome back to the Lab!  Today’s cocktail is the Black Russian.  (I’m still plodding away in the B section of my Museum of the American Cocktail Book; my handy-dandy pocket recipe guide).  When I turned the page to the Black Russian…my reaction:  Meh.

Two ingredients…vodka and coffee liqueur, neither of which I like all that well.  But apparently the one-time US ambassador to Luxembourg, Perle Mesta, was a big fan of the vodka/coffee combo.  The Black Russian made its first appearance in the late 1940’s when Gustave Tops, a bartender at the Hotel Metropole in Brussels created the concoction for Ambassador Mesta.

The Black Russian is traditionally made with Kahlua, a Mexican rum-based coffee liqueur.  Here’s where I started to struggle with my science schtick for this post.  Damn the Black Russian!  What was I going to talk about?  Vodka?  Seriously? Kahlua?…coffee…interesting….now we’re getting somewhere.  Gears are turning.  Yes, that’s it!  Biofermentation!  Thank the baby Jesus for that Food Science degree.  My family would be so proud of how I apply my skills.

Fun DrinkScience Fact

(I’ll do the research so you can impress your friends at your next cocktail party).

So what does biofermentation have to do with the Black Russian, you ask?  According to Kahlua, coffee is really used during the production of this beverage.  And lest we forget, we live in the coffee-soaked city of Seattle, so we all drink coffee, right?  As such, I assume that you all know a little about the coffee production process.  Beans are picked, they’re green, then they’re roasted, we grind them, and then we make coffee, yes?  Yes, but let’s fill in the gaps with a few more details.  In fact, just go and take a look at this slide deck by the Jackels of Seattle U. and U.W. Bothell which explains coffee bean fermentation:  http://faculty.washington.edu/jackels/research/UCAPresentation_files/frame.htm  (People really do study this phenomenon).

Basically, after the outer skin and pulp surrounding the coffee beans are removed, there still exists a mucilage layer (aka parchment/endocarp).  That’s right, I said mucilage.

Remember this stuff?

This is mucilage; it even says so.  My grandma always had this stuff at her house and I would love to glue anything just so I could use the strange rubbery glue applicator.  Strange kid, I know.

The coffee beans with their mucilage layer are put in a fermentation tank so nature can take its course.  The mucilage is a thick, gluey, pectin covering, and a natural fermentation process removes the goo.  When I say ‘natural’ I mean that no organisms are added to the tank.  This is all just the normal flora…nature.  Bacteria, yeast, and fungi that produce pectinases, enzymes that break down pectin, are naturally occurring and will eat the mucilage away from the beans.

This is pectin:

So is this:

These are pectinase producing microorganisms.  Bacteria:


Yeast, such as Pichia and Candida.

Let’s not forget the fungi…Aspergillus, Penicillium and Fusarium

Once the bioenzymatic process is complete, the goo is gone and the coffee beans are washed and ready for the next step:  Drying, roasting, and Kahlua!

Without further ado:

The Black Russian!

  • 60ml Vodka
  • 30ml Kahlua
  • Build over ice in rocks glass.  Serve to someone that will drink it.

Black Russian. Courtesy of Sugar Sand Photography!


Get Back in the Lab!


Hey Folks! Happy Holidays and New Year! The Laboratory has been a long time on hiatus.

The Libation Laboratory relocated, and as anyone in the science business knows, breaking down and setting up a lab takes a long time. But we’re just about back up and running. Expect to see alot from us this next year.

But tonight, Sugarsand is in the lab! We’re mixing and photodocumenting. Stay tuned to see the results!


Let’s Go to the Museum

BACKGROUND:  New Year’s Eve 2009.  CR and I find ourselves looking for trouble in South Lake Union (SLU).  Well, actually, we’re looking for a cocktail.  I should also mention that it is approximately 1:00p in the afternoon.  By this time in my cocktail evolution, I knew of many local superstar bartenders and cocktail bloggers.  I had read that Andrew Bohrer recently moved from the Naga lounge on the Eastside (aka Montana) to create the cocktail program at the new SLU restaurant Mistral Kitchen.  You do the math, CR and I are on our way to drink Andrew Bohrer creations at Mistral Kitchen.  The joint is almost empty except for a couple at the bar.  Two spots left and we take them.  There seems to be some kind of experiment going on and our bar-mates are taking pictures of the drinks Andrew is making.

Andrew takes our order.  I ask for something Manhattan-y.  He pours some booze into a beautiful mixing glass.  Next, he proceeds to carve an ice ball the size of an orange.  And then he takes out the coolest peeler I’ve seen (everyone needs one of these) and peels an orange in one strip, which he wraps around the ice ball.  Seriously, it was the coolest thing I’ve seen.  I loved that drink.  This was a memorable day.  CR and I drinking incredible cocktails in an empty Mistral Kitchen (turns out they closed from 1p-5p, but didn’t ask us to leave) talking cocktails with Andrew Bohrer.  Best. New Years. Ever.  And it turns out that our bar-mate was A.J. Rathbun, author of Dark Spirits.  OK, I’m geeking out on this, and 99.73 % of you will be saying “so?” but I still talk about that day.

We talked cocktail books with Andrew that day.  He told us that one of the most useful books you could have was The Museum of the American Cocktail Pocket Recipe Guide.   So, this is the plan.  All in the name of science…  I’m new here, I don’t really know what I’m doing, but I want to improve my skill set.  This little cocktail book contains recipes to 100 classic cocktails that all good bartenders/mixologists/cocktail enthusiasts should know.  You know where I’m going with this right?  Oh sure, I know…not very original, not very unique.  I know it’s been done.  There’s the famous Julie and Julia Project (I promise I won’t be mean to CR).  And there’s the more subject appropriate Jerry Thomas Project (so much cooler than mine).  But, I don’t care.  I need to know this stuff.  So, here we go with the “Mixing the Museum” project.  100 cocktails in 100 TBD days.  (whoa, too ambitious.  Let’s go with TBD days).  Stay tuned for the Algonquin.

>Welcome to the Libation Laboratory


Today is 1-1-11.  I’m not necessarily a fanatic about numerology, but, let’s face it, how cool is it when the date is something like 1-1-11?  When it was 10-10-10, I was doing something fun and memorable and it was on purpose because the numbers were 10-10-10.   What I’m saying is that 1-1-11 is an auspicious day and I should do something fun and memorable.  So, let’s get started with that.  
     I have a new hobby.  This hobby (obsession/fascination) has been a slow evolution.  Think of it as the classic hockey stick graph.  The blade of the hockey stick represents my earliest experimentation a long time ago, which was drinking Jack Daniels in the back of a 1970 Plymouth Barracuda (Nasty.  Experiment failed miserably).  Next entry was frozen, sugary, blended drinks where you mix colored liquid from one bottle with booze from a second bottle (tasty but, let’s face it, not really a cocktail…more like dessert in a glass).   And then I grew older, wiser and moved to Seattle.  Next up was dinner with C&E at a now defunct restaurant and I tried C’s Lemon Drop.   I know, I know, a beginner cocktail with easy-to-like ingredients.  But, damn, that lemon drop was pretty tasty.  Interesting…  OK, so now this is where we start to make the transition to the handle of the hockey stick and things are really going to take off at an accelerated rate.  
     A little over two years ago, I began to watch Rachel Maddow on MSNBC and thought she was so very cool, which led me to read an article written about her.  Within this biographic article, she talked of her love for making (and drinking) cocktails.  Interesting… I could do that….make cocktails, be cool (seriously, who doesn’t want to be cool?  You don’t?  Ok, well then I have some baggage from childhood that motivates me to want to be cool.  Don’t judge).  But where to start?  I would need a reference guide, a book.  I couldn’t just begin by throwing things together.  That’s not how I’m wired.  My knowledge of cocktails consisted of Jack and coke, frozen red drinks, and lemon drops.  I would definitely need a book.  And not just a book of recipes.  After all, I am supposed to be a scientist by training (at least reading the titles of the pieces of paper that you are given after many years and much money, one might discern that perhaps I am of the sciencey ilk).  So, back to the book….I would need a book.  CR (completely supportive of my new hobby/addiction) and I went shopping.  Not at all sure what was available for someone wanting to start down a cocktail journey, I ended up being drawn to Drinks.  This book had everything I was looking for….descriptions and history of the different base liquors and cocktail recipes with stories of their creation.  Great.  I dove in for an interesting, educational read.  And then another significant event happened that facilitated the continuation of the upward hockey stick handle trend.  There occurred the snowstorm of December 2008.  (I also like to refer to this time as the Christmas Miracle of 2008).  Seattle experienced such a significant dump of snow over several days that the city effectively shut down for two weeks.  Having lived in Seattle now for more than 5 years, CR and I had lost our mid-west resilience for driving around on snow and ice (though we did build one hellish snow-woman in the front yard).  To battle cabin fever, we walked.  We walked to the movies.  We walked to the mall.  We walked to the Ave.  We walked to the market.  And, we discovered that the liquor store was within walking distance too.  And so the liquor cabinet was born and began to grow.  After 5 continuous days of shopping at the liquor store and seeing the same checkout person, we felt compelled to explain that we didn’t have a “problem”, we had just read a new cocktail recipe and we needed ingredients.  The response back:  deadpan “U-Huh”.  Ok, so we don’t care what the liquor store check-out person thinks of us.  We had found our proverbial candy story.  So many shelves and shiny bottles and colorful liquids.  So many flavors and interesting names.  And we also found our liquor store encyclopedia boyfriend John.  With a breadth of knowledge about all types of booze, his colorful hair and unpretentious attitude, John has become our go-to person for new and interesting bottles of liquor. 
    OK, so things are happening fast now.  It was time to mix a ‘real’ cocktail.  We had traveled to Paris the year before and had such a wonderful trip that we were still talking about it.  I read a recipe for a cocktail called the Champs Elysées, a classic cocktail first referenced in the 1930 Savoy Cocktail Book.   Perfect.  I had to mix this drink.  Trip to kitchen store for cocktail shaker, check.  Trip to liquor store for ingredients, check.  Green Chartreuse, a secret recipe made by Carthusian Monks since the 1740s, with extracts from 132 plants and its coloring coming from chlorophyll…so beyond cool.  Mix up two.  Serve.  Frakity Frak!  That damn drink is good!  Ok.  I’m in; count me in.  Extra time because of the snowstorm afforded me lots of play time for my new hobby.  I discovered wonderful blogs all about cocktails.  Hello Paul Clarke and Jay Hepburn.  Please be my new BFFs.  So many books written about my new hobby (bookstore within walking distance, check).  There is an annual conference to celebrate my new hobby,  a magazine devoted almost entirely to my new passion.  And let’s not forget about a Guild, there’s even a Guild.  Apparently, even I can be a member of the Washington State Bartenders Guild.  I read of the different kinds of shiny, sparkly new bar tools I would need.  Kid in a candy store….A Christmas Miracle. 
     Back to the hockey stick….we are racing up the handle, which is where we are today, 1-1-11.  I’m not a writer, I haven’t traveled the world, and I just learned that cocktails can be tasty.  But I’m compelled to write a blog about this new hobby of mine.  CR dubbed it Libation Laboratory.  She thinks it’s my outlet for being a frustrated scientist who doesn’t actually ‘do’ science anymore.  If so, then what an appropriate name.  Thus, two years after the self-discovery that cocktails are indeed tasty, I’m taking it to the next level.  Welcome to the Libation Laboratory.