Just north of the Oxford Square, you can find Lenora’s, a graceful little joint whose reputation precedes it. You’re surprised, pushing through the glass door, to find a narrow hallway that opens up into a large, pleasantly-lit room complete with cozy, pillowed wall seats, à la "Arabian Nights" and a snazzy bar, boasting every liqueur, wine and spirit you’d ever need. It’s an exotic, fine sort of atmosphere that warrants a well-dressed staff, elegant simplicity and exemplary table manners.Lenora’s is all about good food and good times. It’s a popular place for family dinners and the go-to venue for dinner parties. It’s not surprising to find it booked for the night for Christmas parties, sorority and fraternity events and other social gatherings. There’s an easy, refined quality to this place that’s grounded in its Mediterranean-based food that still holds true to its Southern roots.Whit Hamilton, a bartender at Lenora's, is ever ready to make their special White Russian, even as the restaurant is busy with preparation for the evening’s events. The sweet elixir is the perfect winter-time drink, although the Dude would surely argue that it's good anytime of the year.
Originating from the Black Russian, popular in the early 1950’s, the drink morphed into its better-known white cousin in the mid-sixties with the addition of cream. “It didn’t see any real jump in popularity until the '70s. It’s American in origin as far as I can tell, and is only called a Russian because the base liquor is vodka,” says Hamilton.The White Russian has enjoyed its own cult following, courtesy of its well-known status as a favorite of the casual protagonist of "The Big Lebowski." It’s as drinkable as the film is quotable. Even more, Lenora’s makes them special with their substitution of Bailey's Irish Cream in the place of milk or heavy cream. “It definitely adds a different flavor to it. It’s a little sweeter in the long run,” he explains. “There are a ton of variations, though, and apparently the Irish cream version is known as the Blind Russian since its only ingredients are liquor.”Lenora’s has been crafting their White Russian this way ever since Hamilton can remember. “Cream-based drinks are throwbacks to the old cocktails — to when they first started coming out. People began drinking not just straight spirits; a lot of the early cocktails had raw egg or some sort of milk or cream substitute.”
Their special ingredient isn’t a secret. Most people come here for the White Russian because of the Bailey's, and the drink’s resulting unique flavor. Hamilton also likes to add a pinch of fresh cinnamon and nutmeg to his White Russians, a trick he learned from Brandon McCaleb of Greenwood, Miss. “The vanilla vodka we use makes a world of difference, and I like to turn it once. To me, they just taste like the holidays.”Hamilton should be considered an authority in these affairs. He's been working in restaurants since he was 12 years old. “My dad had a restaurant when I was very young — The Cotton Factor — and I pretty much worked every position I could in that restaurant.” Growing up in Greenwood, Miss., he was raised around fantastic food. He’s also a self-taught bartender. “I’ve never taken courses. I think bartending school is a sham in most cases. I worked for several years for Giardiana's and the Viking Range Hospitality. I then moved to Athens, Ga., for six years and worked for several other bars, including a Speakeasy, a fantastic cocktail and tapas joint. Then I returned to Oxford, where I worked for Snackbar, and now for Lenora’s.”
Lenora’s White Russian:
Vanilla Vodka, Kahlua and Baileys2 parts Vanilla Vodka2 parts Kahlua1 part BaileysTurn oncePinch of nutmeg and cinnamon
1. Fill glass with shaved ice2. Individually add 2 ounces of StoliVanilla, 2 ounces Kahlua, 1 ounce ofBailey's Irish Cream3. Add a pinch of grated fresh nutmegand cinnamon4. Turn once in a shaker and garnishwith nutmeg/cinnamon mixture.
White Winters, White Russians
A decadently creamy and frosty drink recipe from Lenora’s in Oxford
Review by Mary Buchanan Sellers
Photos by Casey Hilder