The Black Russian cocktail is one of the original drinks that popularized the combination of coffee liqueur and vodka, and is the forebearer to the better-known White Russian. Like other drinks, including the Moscow Mule, the cocktail’s actual connection to Russia is mostly nonexistent, meant simply to play off popular associations between the country and vodka, regardless of where it’s produced.
The drink itself is said to have been created in Brussels in 1949 by bartender Gustave Tops of the Hotel Metropole, who mixed it for the United States ambassador to Luxembourg, Perle Mesta. The simple combination of vodka and Kahlúa, a Mexican coffee liqueur, could also be seen as an early iteration of the now-resurgent 1980s classic, the espresso martini.
The original Black Russian gained modest popularity in the decades after its creation, owning the Mesta’s position as a prominent socialite in political circles at the time, famous for hosting lavish parties. In the 1960s, a variation that included cream gained favor, and the White Russian usurped its predecessor as the preeminent coffee-vodka combination of choice.
What’s in a Black Russian cocktail?
The original Black Russian is a simple two-ingredient cocktail. It features two parts vodka to one part coffee liqueur, mixed and served over ice.
While these specifications make a serviceable drink, a few dashes of orange bitters can help balance the liqueur’s sweetness and add a dimension of citrus to lift the cocktail’s core components. Similarly, while early recipes featured no garnish, later iterations called for a cocktail cherry, though this can add to the already noticeable sugary profile of the drink. A flamed orange peel is a good alternative to add a hint of smoky depth on the nose, and helps create a complementary structure similar to a classic Old Fashioned.
Almost any unflavored vodka will work in a Black Russian, as the spirit it known for its ability to adapt to nearly any flavor profile it’s combined with. If you wish to tailor your cocktail beyond the bounds of the original, you may be best off experimenting with various coffee liqueur options.
While there is no best coffee liqueur for the drink, the original recipe calls for Kahlúa, a rum-based option that brings hints of vanilla and is familiar to most cocktail lovers. However, a wealth of options is available from both newer and established producers.
Australia-based Mr. Black Cold Brew Coffee Liqueur uses a wheat vodka base with arabica coffee and cane sugar that will add more caffeine to your drink. Another option is Leopold Bros. Frenchpress-Style American Coffee Liqueur, which is created using freshly roasted coffee in a water press for more pronounced coffee aromas.
For added complexity, St. George NOLA Coffee Liqueur pays homage to New Orleans-style coffee by including roasted chicory root. Jägermeister Cold Brew Coffee, from the famed German digestif producer, combines an Arabica coffee base with the brand’s signature herbal profile for those who want include notes of black licorice and menthol in their drink. Fans of Negronis may enjoy J. Rieger & Co.’s Caffé Amaro, a lighter option that combines coffee with the herbal profile of a classic Italian bitter, including botanicals like cardamom, star anise, spearmint and orange peel.
Combine vodka, coffee liqueur and bitters in mixing glass filled with ice. Stir for 30–45 seconds until well-chilled. Strain into rocks glass over fresh ice. Hold lit match or lighter next to large orange peel, and squeeze peel over cocktail to flame. Drop flamed peel in glass to garnish.