Every once in a while, a cocktail ends up becoming famous more for its place in pop culture than for any great history or epicurean brilliance. Squarely in that category is the White Russian, a drink that owes much of its popularity to the 1998 Cohen brothers cult classic The Big Lebowski, in which Jeff Bridges’ iconic stoner drinks no fewer than nine of them over the course of the film.
That said, the White Russian is actually a pretty great drink in its own right. It’s simple, creamy, and perfect as an after-dinner cocktail (or simply a dessert itself). So where does it come from?
What is a White Russian?
The White Russian is, shockingly, a slight variation on a similar drink, the Black Russian. The Black Russian recipe calls for a simple combination of vodka and coffee liqueur, typically Kahlúa—all you need to do to transform it is throw in a little bit of cream. There’s nothing Russian about it other than using vodka as the base spirit, and it’s less white than it is a light brownish color like chocolate milk—but hey, in the grand scheme of cocktail misnomers, this one is pretty tame.
The History of the White Russian
The history of the White Russian, on the other hand, appears to be a little less straightforward. There’s little written on the subject, but it seems that the Black Russian was first mixed (in public, anyway) in 1949 in Brussels, Belgium. Gustave Tops, a bartender at the Hotel Metropole, came up with the combination in honor of Perle Mesta, the US Ambassador to Luxembourg at the time.
Yeah, it’s a pretty obscure origin, and one that probably isn’t going to warrant a biopic anytime soon.
When March 6 rolls around, you’re bound to come across a few devotees clad in bathrobes, long hair, oversized sunglasses, and White Russians in hand.
Beyond that, though, the evolution of the drink isn’t very well documented. Adding cream or juice to a two-ingredient cocktail (typically known as a duo) has been a pretty common practice for some time, so we can only assume that somewhere along the way, that’s exactly what happened to the Black Russian. Apparently, the first time the name appeared in print was in a 1965 issue of the Oakland Tribune, and it stuck.
Fast-forward through 33 years of middling popularity, and we come to the White Russian’s zenith: The Big Lebowski. The film’s protagonist, Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski, was reportedly based in part on a real-life friend of the directors who was fond of the drink. And since he sucks them down left and right throughout the movie, it’s gradual cementing as a cult classic carried with it a new-found appreciation for White Russians.
These days, the “cult” part of that moniker has really come into its own. A whole pseudo-ironic religion known as “Dudeism” has popped up within the fanbase, and chief among its supremely relaxed holidays is The Day of the Dude, celebrated on March 6—the day The Big Lebowski premiered. Whenever that auspicious date rolls around, you’re bound to come across a few devotees clad in bathrobes, long hair, and oversized sunglasses, almost always with a White Russian in hand.
But before you can join in the celebrations, you have to know how to make one that doesn’t suck.
How to Make a White Russian Fit for The Dude
Since it’s comprised of only three ingredients (there’s not even a garnish to complicate your shopping list), the White Russian is a pretty hard cocktail to mess up. As we said above, all you need is vodka, coffee liqueur, and cream.
The vodka you use in a White Russian doesn’t matter all that much, at least not compared to a spirit-forward drink like a Vodka Martini or a Vodka Gimlet. If you use truly awful stuff, it’s certainly going to bring the quality of the final product down, but a reasonably-priced bottle should serve you well. And for those who seek authenticity, The Dude stocks his home bar with Smirnoff.
Contrary to popular belief, a White Russian recipe doesn’t need Kahlúa. It’s the classic choice, sure, but there are dozens of great alternatives out there, from Illy Espresso Liqueur to St. George Spirits NOLA Coffee Liqueur, and all kinds of craft and international favorites in between.
Each one will bring its own unique character to the drink, and some will inevitably work better than others, but this is the one part of this cocktail where you can really go nuts with the experimentation.
While the White Russian almost always calls for cream, there’s some debate about how literally we should take that prescription. Bars have been known to use milk, half & half, heavy whipping cream, or even to go off the rails with coconut cream, goat’s milk, Baileys, or horchata.
As far as our experiments are concerned, creamier isn’t always better. You don’t want to go to the other extreme with skim or low-fat milk, as the result tends to be watery and underwhelming, but heavy cream can also be excessively rich. Half & half and light cream seem to be the best choices, as they balance fat content with drinkability. You don’t want to feel like you just ate a stick of butter after one drink, but let’s be honest—nobody’s drinking a White Russian on a diet, so you might as well get the texture and sweetness right.
Of course, if you really want to emulate The Dude, you should go ahead and use whatever’s at your disposal and not worry about it too much. After all, he seems to have made one hell of an iconic drink when he used powdered creamer in his cocktail, and who are we to doubt a man of such unimpeachable leisure?