Loving the White Russian Is as Easy as Making It

October  6, 2017

Robert Simonson writes about cocktails, spirits, bars, and bartenders for The New York Times. He is the author of A Proper Drink, The Old-Fashioned, and recently-released 3-Ingredient Cocktails. He lives in Brooklyn. Below is an expanded excerpt on the White Russian written exclusively for Food52.

Drinks based on cream or cream liqueurs have gone rather unloved by the bibulous barricade-stormers of the cocktail revolution. Nobody, it seems, wanted to be that bartender who saved the Brandy Alexander or Grasshopper from obscurity. Those drinks were thought to be too simple, too sweet, too silly.

It was tempting, then, to leave them out altogether when compiling the recipe list for my new book 3-Ingredient Cocktails: An Opinionated Guide to the Most Enduring Drinks in the Cocktail Canon, and focus on respectably spirit-forward mixtures like the Martini and formidable sours like the Daiquiri.

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But that wouldn’t have been fair or truthful. A handful of cream cocktails have shown as much staying power as the Old-Fashioned or Negroni. Take the White Russian. This mélange of vodka, Kahlua and heavy cream isn’t going to win any points for delicacy. But what it lacks in subtlety it more than makes up for in four-square solidity.

Subtle? No. Delicious? Yes. Photo by Bobbi Lin

The drink reportedly emerged in the 1960s, and its fortunes rose in tandem with its base spirit, vodka. It didn’t get a whole lot of respect, however, until the Coen Brothers decided to make it the drink of choice of California slacker extraordinaire Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski in the 1998 film The Big Lebowski. After that, you could drink the cocktail with an air of irony and wit—qualities never previously associated with the potion.

Unless you work for Kahlua or the National Dairy Council, best to keep those portions of the drink down. It will curb the sweetness and heaviness. Choice of vodka doesn't matter at all. Also, there are a number of new quality coffee liqueurs out there now, if you want to experiment. As for serving it on the rocks—do you drink your milk with ice?

Are you a fan of the White Russian? The Big Lebowski? Both? Neither? Discuss!

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Cocktail writer for the New York Times.


Ellery November 2, 2019
My husband makes this cocktail for us all the time. Instead of vodka we use, Whiskey Del Bac Old Pueblo for a Southwest take on this classic winter wonderland.
Bevi October 8, 2017
This was my drink in the mid-seventies. I also remember having a few Black Russians-omit the cream. When I bartenede at the New England House in New Haven, we had a special sink area for cream drinks so as not to smear up the entire stash of bar glasses.
Ace T. October 8, 2017
This is a great trip. along with enjoying the unique drinks.
See more:
Steven W. October 7, 2017
I think The Dude used half and half?
FrugalCat October 7, 2017
Of course the vodka matters! Use a vanilla vodka (Stoli is the best, but lots of other companies make one) and use half n half or light cream. I find heavy cream too thick. Serve over ice (do not strain) in a cup from Dunkin' Donuts or Starbucks for a cocktail it is socially acceptable to walk around drinking in public.