The History of the White Russian

An article I wrote for Chilled Magazine.

Made with vodka, coffee liqueur, cream, and served over ice in an Old-Fashioned glass, the White Russian is a sweet and simple cocktail enjoyed by people who drink often and those who rarely do.

The White Russian was originally a variation of another vodka drink that first became known in the late 1940s as the Black Russian. It became a White Russian with the addition of cream. Neither drink originated in Russia, but both are named due to vodka being the primary component. It is said that the Black Russian originated in Brussels, Belgium.

Its potency and smooth flavor was most likely the cause of the White Russian’s quick rise to popularity, along with the fact that it’s easy to make. It was a top pick for both alcoholics and beginners in the 1970s, but fizzed out with the rest of the disco fads. Years later, the cocktail regained popularity in the 1998 film, The Big Lebowski by being a favorite of the movie’s protagonist, Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski, played by Jeff Bridges. America’s restored appreciation for coffee may also be bringing the White Russian back into style.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the White Russian was first documented in the Oakland Tribune in November 1965. This is believed to be the first published instance of the drink. There was also a cocktail called the “White Russian” that appeared in the Boston Globe in a Southern Comfort advertisement. This was years before the Oakland Tribune mentioned the White Russian. It’s unknown whether the Southern Comfort marketing department originally came up with the idea, or perhaps people had been adding cream to their Black Russians for decades without it being documented.

As with any cocktail, preparation varies according to the recipes and styles of bars or mixologists. Adjusting the amounts of vodka or coffee liqueur or mixing brands of coffee liqueur is common. Shaking the cream to thicken it before pouring it over the White Russian is also common. Kahlúa is the brand of coffee liqueur associated with the White Russian, most likely because it became somewhat of a trademark for coffee liqueur. In the absence of cream, it’s acceptable to substitute something with a similar texture, such as milk. The White Russian’s cream has also been replaced with half and half, vanilla soy milk, and Baileys Irish Cream. The proportion of cream to the volume of coffee liqueur should be about the same, and should have a sweetening effect on the drink.

The White Russian is a popular choice among those who are sensitive to the taste of strong liquor. The cocktail should resemble an intensified Irish coffee in flavor and should have a pearly color to it. The White Russian is meant to be sipped and savored for the majestic tavern staple that it is.

Ingredients

  • 1 fluid ounce coffee flavored liqueur
  • 1 fluid ounce vodka
  • 1/2 cup cream or milk

Preparation

  • Pour vodka and coffee liqueur over ice cubes in an Old-Fashioned glass.
  • Fill with light cream and serve.
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