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.
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?