At first glance, your average White Russian cocktail might seem unapologetically rich. In the hands of a skilled bartender, however, it’s surprisingly balanced. Indulgence is an art, after all.
The standard White Russian recipe features equal parts vodka, coffee liqueur, and either half and half or heavy cream. When you’re mixing up this drink, you want to maintain a smooth, creamy consistency — without diving into milkshake territory.
VinePair spoke to bartenders across the country for their tips. Here are five dos and don’ts to help you make excellent White Russians at home.
What to Do When Making White Russians
1. Measure your ingredients.
“The most common mistake people make when making White Russians is not measuring their ingredients,” Robert Cate, Food and Beverage Manager, Coppin’s Restaurant & Bar, Covington Ky., says. If you measure equal parts of all ingredients, you know they will blend into one another perfectly.
Of course, it’s your drink. If it seems too sweet or heavy for your liking, you can always “bump up the vodka,” Juyoung Kang, the lead bartender at The Dorsey at The Venetian in Las Vegas, says. Or, if you prefer a thinner consistency, try Cate’s preferred ratio: 1.5 ounces of vodka to 1 ounce cream and 0.5 ounces liqueur.
Just be sure to measure as you’re fine-tuning your favorite rubric, so you can recreate the magic next time.
2. Get a good-quality coffee liqueur.
“Quality products are key when you only have three ingredients,” Cody Henson, Bar Manager, Trade Room at The Alida, Savannah, Ga., says. “Use a good coffee liqueur that tastes like coffee.”
Kahlua is widely available, but it’s not your only option. “Mr. Black is a good, new one on the market,” Jim Kearns, Beverage Director of Recreation at Moxy NYC Downtown, says. “It’s quite strong, and it is made with real espresso, if you’re looking for a little jolt with your juice.” Kearns is partial to Galliano Ristretto Coffee Liqueur, which has a complex , fruity flavor.
Scott Baird, Bar Manager, Hidden Bar at Noelle, Nashville, likes St. George NOLA. “It has a little added chicory that gives a great bitter, woody note,” Baird says.
Not sure which one is right for you? The next time you’re ordering a White Russian at a bar, ask your bartender which coffee liqueur they use and why. If you’re especially polite, they might even offer you a taste.
What to Avoid When Making White Russians
1. Don’t use milk.
Even if you drink your coffee black and pour skim or unsweetened almond milk in your cereal, you’re going to want to use heavy cream or at least half and half in a White Russian.
“The higher fat in the cream makes for a more round flavor,” Henson says. “Even whole milk is too thin and separates.”
“Don’t make them too dry,” Baird agrees. “Be generous with the coffee liqueur, and be generous with the half and half.” Your final product should be smooth, like creamy iced coffee.
Yes, cream or half and half make for a decadent drink. But that’s kind of the point.
“Let’s be honest, a White Russian isn’t something you go for when you’re counting calories,” Henson says. “Go all out with it!”
2. This is not an aperitif.
Drinks like the Negroni and Aperol Spritz are designed to whet the appetite before a meal. The White Russian, on the other hand, is rich with liqueur and heavy cream. It works better as a nightcap, Jake Yestingsmeier, Director of Food and Beverage, Monarch Prime & Bar, Omaha, says.
“A White Russian is all about balance,” Yestingsmeier says. You don’t want your White Russian to get too heavy or boozy. “Starting a long night with them is also ill-advised,” Yestingsmeier adds.
3. Mind your ins, outs, and whathaveyous.
The best way to enjoy a White Russian is in the company of friends and fans. “Not watching ‘The Big Lebowski’ while drinking a White Russian is an all-too-common pitfall,” Kearns says.