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Cheers! North County: Signature drinks in film

On the mantel bar, below the framed poster of then-President Nixon bowling, in the home of one Jeffrey Lebowski, there are two large bottles of Kahlua, two large and many mini bottles of vodka, and a carton of recently purchased half & half along with a bucket of ice. All the makings of a classic White Russian cocktail.

The Dude drinks White Russians. He drinks only White Russians. It is his signature drink and an inspired choice in an era that had largely forgotten the cocktail. Jeff Bridges’ character is so associated with the drink it would feel blasphemous to consider a substitute. The Dude drinks Grasshoppers? I don’t think so.

James Bond drinks martinis. Always shaken. Never stirred, until he famously doesn’t in Casino Royale when he gives up the pretense.

Jack Nicholson had his handle of Jim Beam in “Easy Rider.” George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez drink bourbon neat in what is probably the sexiest bank robber film of all time, “Out of Sight,” and Clooney goes back to the well when as Danny Ocean he orders a “whiskey, and a whiskey” when seeing his ex-wife for the first time.

Drinking in the movies inspires. I decided to be a bartender after watching “Cocktail” with Tom Cruise. Not a joke. More than a few kids ended up in the hospital after mimicking Belushi drinking a full bottle of Jack Daniels in “Animal House.” Unfortunately, true.

“The Hangover,” a true cinematic warning to appreciate the little things you have in life, starts with shots of Jägermeister on the roof, inspiring a new generation to see Vegas as the place to go for bachelor or bachelorette parties.

Jeff Bridges
Jeff Bridges’ character in “The Big Lebowski,” fancied himself a White Russian cocktail, a drink he made (and drank) with regularity throughout the film. Still photo/Distributed by Universal Films

I was going to create a list of the best drinking scenes in movies this week, but quickly got overwhelmed. What would be included? Spirits, wine and beer? Are we including documentaries? Any drinking, or only crafted beverages? Is the drink the important part? Or is it the impact the beverage has on the scene, or how it changes our impression of the character.

If James Bond ordered a whiskey with a pickleback and a Miller High Life chaser, would we look at him the same way? For those unfamiliar, a pickleback is a shot of pickle brine traditionally taken after a shot of whiskey.

My lists quickly got out of control. There are great movies specifically about wine including “Bottle Shock,” “Uncorked,” “Sideways.” A few about beer, mostly comedies including “Strange Brew,” “Beerfest” and the dramatic outlier, “Drinking Buddies.”

Cocktails, however, find their place within the films themselves, and I’d say are better off for it.

The natural inclusion into a moment gives the audience a chance to take a breath before taking us along on whatever journey the hero, or sometimes the tragic figure, decides to take. A fancy cocktail with a smile doesn’t have the same implication as the same drink with an untucked button-down and loosened tie.

Like the big-screen heroes, I wanted to have a signature drink, and for the better part of a decade, I settled on the Vodka Gimlet. A classic that had fallen out of style. Two fingers of vodka, a splash of simple syrup and a fresh squeeze of lime.

I felt cool ordering it. No one my age knew what it was, so I’d get to describe it, the taste was refreshing, and I never had to bother with a menu. At a dinner or on the back porch, if I was drinking a cocktail, I was drinking a gimlet. It was my drinking version of Steve Jobs’ black turtleneck.

Then one day I was watching that scene from “Ocean’s Eleven,” and I decided I should learn to like whiskey. Michter’s Rye was the first whiskey I tried without all the bells and whistles. A single shot on an ice cube.

I learned quickly that ordering that second “and a whiskey” wasn’t as good of an idea for me as it was for Danny Ocean. As I go into this next phase of my drinking life, I’m a whiskey, preferably rye, on an ice cube guy, and it’s because of the movies.

WRITER’S NOTE:  Local bars, wineries and breweries that do not serve food are closing again effective Wednesday, July 1. San Diego County announced the closure is due to recent spikes in positive cases of coronavirus and four outbreaks directly connected to bars and restaurants. If you plan on going to your favorite eating establishment, please wear a mask, social distance and be smart out there.