Soviet cocktail king still shakes it up

Shaking and stirring for some of Hollywood's elite has made a Russian bartender a legend. Working during the height of the cold war, he provided foreign visitors with a window on life in the Soviet Union.

Aleksandr Kudryavtsev is more than just a barman. He is a guru for all Russian bartenders. He has been shaking cocktails since the early 1960s. And in the USSR's closed society, where bars were for foreigners only, his was one of the few voices heard by those visiting behind the Iron Curtain.

“A Soviet survey discovered that foreign tourists got most information about the country and its traditions not from guides, but from barmen and waitresses. We were responsible for our country's image abroad – quite an important mission,” Aleksandr says.

Among those who got the real picture about the Soviet Union from Aleksandr were the rich and famous – world-renowned artist Marc Chagall, at the dawn of his career, and Duke Ellington already at the top of the jazz tree.

But Aleksandr's most tender memories are about Elizabeth Taylor.

“She asked for a glass of champagne. ‘That's a great choice,’ I said, ‘but I can make your favorite cocktail any way you like. A “Morning Glory” maybe.’ She was speechless. She didn't expect anyone in the Soviet Union to know that. But I did know. It was my passion,” recalls the barman.

After breaking the ice, the young Soviet barman and Hollywood's top diva became friends.

“When she was leaving, she gave me a present for my wife. She wrapped it up, and gave it to me. As soon as I was alone in the bar, I unwrapped it, with my heart thumping. It was a lipstick, a very fashionable color, with an inscription saying ‘Especially for Liz’,” Aleksandr says.

This innocent gift could have cost Aleksandr his career. Barmen were prevented from interacting with their clients – as anybody on the other side of the counter could be a spy. They were allowed small talk – about the weather or art, but faced arrest as soon as they touched upon politics or religion. Tips were not allowed either. Aleksandr remembers Big Brother was always watching.

Today, as a legendary barman, he teaches young men and women his beautiful but difficult art. And while he is still in focus now, fortunately it is only the media keeping an eye on him.