The Enduring Legacy of the White Russian Cocktail

White Russian in rocks glass on marble background
White Russian / Photo by Meg Baggott, styling by Dylan Garret

The White Russian, a combination of vodka, coffee liqueur and cream, is comfort food in a glass. Warming in the winter, refreshing like a cold milkshake on a summer day, there’s a reason this cocktail has endured through decades of shifts in cocktail tastes and pop culture references.

The drink is said to have been created as a riff on the Black Russian, a drink composed of vodka and coffee liqueur, and thought to date to Belgium in 1949. While the cocktail has no connection to its namesake country beyond the use of vodka, the recipe was appropriated by coffee liqueur companies that sought recipes to promote their lines, most notably now-defunct brand Coffee Southern.

The White Russian maintained modest popularity throughout the decades to follow but found renewed cultural awareness after featuring prominently in the cult 1998 film The Big Lebowski. The drink’s place in it has since become the subject of academic study, down to dissertations on the decision to float or mix the cream. What’s worth noting is that while other cocktails have seen their popularity ruined, or forever stigmatized, by attachment to pop culture properties, 23 years after  The Big Lebowski’s release the White Russian remains as popular as ever.

One possible explanation for the cocktail’s endurance is its simplicity and accessibility. A White Russian is as suitable for a brunch accompaniment as an after-dinner digestif. Its ingredients are a perfect triangle of equal parts but can easily be adjusted to taste, or free-poured without measuring, and still yield a perfectly tasty drink. And, unlike similar cocktails like the Brandy Alexander, which shares a boozy milkshake-like profile, the ingredients are widespread enough that you can expect to find them in most home bars. It’s why, of all the outlandish aspects of the film, the least surprising aspect is that The Dude would find a bottle of vodka, a bottle of Kahlúa and some sort of milk wherever he ended up.

Here we opt for a floated White Russian, primarily because it photographs well. If you’re looking for a creamier head to the drink, shake the cream separately before pouring over the other ingredients. But also, feel free to shake, stir or combine the ingredients in any way you see fit. It’s a White Russian—you’re not going to screw this up.

Ingredients
  • 1 ounce vodka
  • 1 ounce coffee liqueur, like Kahlúa or Tia Maria
  • 1 ounce cream
Directions

Stir together vodka and coffee liqueur in rocks glass filled with ice. Top with cream, poured slowly into glass, or over the back of a spoon, to float. Optionally, substitute cream with half-and-half or whole milk if a thinner drink is desired). The drink doesn’t require a garnish, but feel free to add crushed cacao nibs or dust with cocoa powder.

Published on May 15, 2021