1½ oz vodka - chilled in the freezer for best results
1 oz heavy cream
1 oz coffee liqueur
Combine in a rocks glass over ice and stir for 10 seconds or so. Shaking a White Russian is nice too, and certainly gets it colder. Though I prefer the concentrated edge that it gets from stirring.
The White Russian is the definition of a guilty pleasure. It's a sweet, creamy dessert drink, the kind you might have expected to fade into obscurity during the modern age. But there’s just something inexplicably satisfying about it.
I'll admit I have a soft spot for these. I had my first one when I was 16 at the Bar Mitzvah of a friend’s younger brother (they had a cool Aunt who got us drinks from the bar). At that point I’d had beer and sips of booze before, but the White Russian was the first drink I had that I couldn’t wait to finish, and to be honest, almost 20 years later I still feel that way. Sure, it may not be exactly what you’d call a "sophisticated" cocktail. But who cares? Good is good.
The traditional recipe calls for equal proportions of each ingredient, which I find to be a bit cloying, so I use 1 ½ ounces vodka. 2 ounces is good too, but that’s entering dangerous territory.
The classic coffee liqueur of choice is Kahlua, which makes a bang-up White Russian, though there are plenty of options to be found. Anything labeled creme de coffee/café will work. Tia Maria is probably the second most common option. Coffee Herring - made by the folks at Cherry Herring - is another good one. Some of these vary in sweetness so you may find that White Russians will need an extra ¼ oz of simple syrup for optimal balance. I know adding sugar to a White Russian sounds crazy, but dairy cuts sweetness very effectively. Particularly heavy cream.
Coffee Liqueur Blend - For the Best White Russian Ever
St. George’s Spirits, the trailblazing craft distillery based out of Northern California, makes a coffee Liqueur called Coffee Nola, which is very different from the rest of the pack. It’s quite dry and accentuates bitter coffee flavors, making it almost like an amaro. It's is far too intense to use on its own in a White Russian, but adding just a pinch will it make the best one you’ve ever had. Try ¾ oz of any classic coffee liqueur, plus ¼ oz St. George Coffee Nola. I know most of you don’t have more than one coffee liqueur in stock, but perhaps you know a bar that does. It's worth trying out.
The Story of the White Russian, and the Dude
The White Russian is actually an offshoot of the Black Russian - a mixture of vodka and coffee liqueur - which was invented in 1949 by bartender Gustave Top at the Hotel Metropole in Brussels, Belguim. Apparently, he created it for Perle Mesta, the American ambassador to Luxembourg (I'll take your word for it internet).
I'm not personally a fan of the Black Russian, but it could be worse and at least it gave us dumb jokes like this one from the Naked Gun 2. The use of “Russian” in the name is likely just because the drink contains vodka, which was still somewhat of a novelty at the time. The version containing cream - making it a "White" Russian, and a much better drink - didn’t appear in print until 1965 when a recipe was included in an issue of California’s Oakland Tribune. Who knows how long people were drinking it before that. Though it should be noted that a recipe for a drink called the Del Monte Lodge Cocktail appears in the Ted Saucier's 1951 "Bottom's Up" which contains equal parts cognac, Kahlua, and cream. So a version with vodka couldn't have been that far behind.
Of course, no discussion of the White Russian could be complete without mentioning the Dude, the central character impeccably realized by Jeff Bridges in the Cohen Brother’s beloved 1998 film "The Big Lebowski". The White Russian is the Dude's drink of choice, his one and only drink of choice. Over the course of the movie's meandering and whimsically philosophic journey, he consumes nine of them, somehow managing to fix one up where ever he goes. He calls the drink a Caucasian, which is a common a pseudonym for a White Russian whose origin I can’t quite pin down (I’ll be honest, I didn’t try that hard). The movie also ends up being prime showcase for how easy of a drink this is to prepare. At one point he opportunistically makes one with non-dairy powdered creamer when that’s the only available option. I’ve never tried this, but how bad could it be? (No really, I’m asking. Have you tried it? How bad is it?)
As the Big Lebowski’s cult classic status has cemented over the years, the White Russian has gained an ironic charm, which has certainly boosted its popularity. Apparently, a favorite college drinking game is to watch the movie and try to keep up with the Dude’s drinking pace, which sounds perilously fun. So it looks like this oddball of a cocktail isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, and that’s just fine by me. Cocktail eras come and go, but the White Russian abides.
Anything brown you substitute in for vodka will be super yummy here, maybe even superior; bourbon, brandy, aged rum - a split of Coruba and Smith & Cross is particularly awesome, call it a White Jamaican?
Taking things in a more dubious direction, if you swap out the heavy cream for Bailey’s Irish Cream, you’ve got yourself a Mudslide. Which tastes like a White Russian with butterscotch, it’s not bad. The Frozen Mudslide is the more infamous version you’ll see on the menu at TGIFridays (or are they passed that now? I haven’t been in awhile). To make one of those you’ll probably want to add a scoop or two of coffee or vanilla ice cream, too much ice will water it down. I’ll leave the whipped cream and chocolate syrup drizzle to your discretion. Gotta say, I never thought I’d be talking about Mudslides on this site, but here we are. It’s a slippery slope, but a tasty one.