The White Russian was once a not-so-well-known cocktail; that all changed when The Dude came along. The White Russian was first mixed up back in 1949 when Gustave Tops, a Belgian bartender, dreamt up two luxurious cocktails, the Black and the White Russian. The difference? Isn't it obvious? The Black Russian lacks cream. Looking to get creative? Make some alterations of your own - milk is a common substitute for cream. Although the cocktail is going on seventy years, it really only burst into the American consciousness when The Dude aka The Big Lebowski brought it to the big screen.
Table Of Contents
White Russian Ingredients
- 1 ¼ oz Vodka
- 1 ¼ oz Half and half
- 1 ¼ oz Coffee liqueur (Kahlua)
White Russian Directions
- Combine all ingredients in mixing glass with ice.
- Strain into chilled rocks glass over fresh ice
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Yield: 1 Cocktail
White Russian Recipe Video
White Russian FAQ
What does a White Russian taste like?
The coffee liqueur, half and half, and vodka mixture makes a White Russian taste like a creamy, boozy, adult chocolate mocha.
Can you make a White Russian without Kahlúa?
You can make a White Russian without Kahlúa, but you cannot make the cocktail without coffee liqueur.
What is the difference between a White Russian and a Black Russian?
A Black Russian and a White Russian share the same base ingredients. For a Black Russian, simply combine vodka and coffee liqueur. To elevate to a White Russian, add half and half or heavy cream to the mixture as well.
The History of the White Russian
The White Russian is a cocktail made with vodka, coffee liqueur, and cream served over ice, though it’s common for the cream component to simply be substituted for milk. And it’s the milk that truly causes this drink’s level of sophistication to be questioned. While it may have been generally accepted for people of all ages to drink milk in decades past, in contemporary culture it’s commonly accepted that milk is a drink for children. If you were to peruse a list of the most popular modern day cocktails, you’d be hard pressed to find many that included dairy as a primary ingredient. On top of this, the drink contains an excessive amount of sugar, which means if you drink enough White Russians in one night, which, lets face it, you probably will, the next morning will be brutally painful. And to add insult to injury, you’re going to significantly pack on the pounds.
And yet, the White Russian endures. The drink was conceived in 1949 when Gustave Tops, a Belgian barman, created the cocktail, along with its sister cocktail, the black Russian – a White Russian without any cream - at the Hotel Metropole in Brussels in honor of Perle Mesta, then U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg.
Most obviously, Belgium is not Russia, so the drink doesn't take its name from its country of origin. It instead inherited Russia in the name because vodka is the main ingredient. Over the next decade the White Russian spread throughout the western hemisphere, ultimately appearing in California’s Oakland Tribune on November 21, 1965, with publication of the official recipe, “White Russian. 1oz. each Southern, vodka, cream.” The word “Southern” refers to a then popular brand of coffee liqueur.
Although the cocktail had become somewhat popular, it still wasn’t highly regarded like other famous cocktails.But this all changed in 1998 when the cult classic film The Big Lebowski was released and the cocktail rose to the superstardom it knows today. In fact, before the movie brought the cocktail to millions of new fans, it was lapsing into a gradual decline. It The Dude who consistently drinks White Russians throughout the film, throwing back a total of 9 before it ends, that brought the drink back from the brink of death. Naturally, fans of the film followed suit, and the cocktail has surged back to popularity.
Best Practices: Don’t Skimp When You’re Making White Russians
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.
How to Make a White Russian
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.
White Russian Variations To Try:
- The Black Russian - The Black Russian is packed with the rich, sweet flavors of coffee liqueur with just the right kick for any occasion.
- The I’m Dreaming Of A White Russian - Vodka, coffee liqueur, and cream get a spike of peppermint extract in this holiday-inspired spin on the classic White Russian.