Happy Hour History: The White Russian

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To learn about the White Russian, we must go back to its darker antecedent: the Black Russian. As the story goes, bartender Gustave Tops first whipped one up in 1949 at Hotel Metropole in Brussels for Perle Mesta, the U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg at the time. The later addition of heavy cream propelled it to popularity throughout the 1960s. Curiously, where Americans shunned the Moscow Mule because of its Cold War connotations, Black and White Russians thrived throughout the era.

However, a competing story takes us back to the 1930s where a vodka, gin, and crème de cacao cocktail called the Russian gained popularity among people who apparently liked to mixed random spirits together and dare each other to drink the result. A later variation called the Barbara dropped the gin. The crème de cacao was subsequently swapped for Kahlúa, and with it the Barbara became the manlier sounding Russian Bear. In this story, the addition of dairy comes sometime around the Barbara/Bear era in the 1950s. The actual black and white distinctions don’t arrive until 1961 edition of the Diners’ Club Drink Book.

By the 1990s, the White Russian had mostly been lost to obscurity when it was resuscitated by the Coen Brothers in their 1998 film The Big Lebowski as the preferred drink of The Dude, played by Jeff Bridges. Since then, the White Russian, or Caucasian — to use the parlance of our times — has attained cult status among fans of the film.

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The White Russian has an odd distinction as a cocktail embraced by novices and old pros alike. It’s sweet and sneaky, packing a punching beneath all that sugar. As drink historian David Wondrich writes, it’s a cocktail “straddling the world of mixed drinking like the Colossus of Rhodes, one foot planted firmly among the folks who never drink, the other among those who always do. Lightweights and lushes.”

While the similarly sweet Brandy Alexander has a touch of sophistication, the White Russian has been much maligned over the decades as being too pedestrian to be taken seriously. But through it all, the White Russian abides. The White Russian abides.

White Russian Recipe

1 oz. vodka*
2 oz. Kahlúa
1 oz. heavy cream**

Directions: Combine ingredients in a shaker with ice, and shake for 10-20 seconds. Strain into a chilled old fashioned glass. Add ice if you like.

  • Between the Kahlúa and the milk, the vodka is virtually invisible here so don’t waste the top-shelf stuff on this one.
  • Most recipes call for heavy cream, but regular whole milk works just as well, and has fewer calories.

Enjoy while listening to this.

Jim Sabataso is a writer, part-time bartender, and full-time cocktail enthusiast living in Vermont. Follow him on Twitter @JimSabataso.