The History of the White Russian

Potent, sweet, and deliciously creamy, the White Russian is undoubtedly a revered cocktail classic. Although the drink is one of several variations of the ‘Russian’ – an early vodka cocktail listed in the 1930s’ The Savoy Cocktail Book – it is perhaps one of the most popular and widely recognised thanks to its kicking flavour and refreshing simplicity.

Named for the fact that vodka is primarily a Russian export (and not related to the origins of the cocktail itself), the first variation of the Russian was the Black Russian, made with vodka and coffee liqueur. It’s rumoured that the drink was made especially for Perle Mesta, the American ambassador to Luxembourg, during her stay at the Hotel Metropole in Brussels in 1949. It was at the start of the Cold War so bartender Gustav Tops felt that a dark, ‘ominous’ drink would be appropriate for the occasion.

Following the Black Russian, the ‘Russian Bear’ was born, sweetening things up a little with a blend of vodka, crème de cacao, cream and sugar. It’s believed that it was this variation on the Black Russian that paved the way for the classic White Russian we know today, with the white cream parading as the main feature.

Although the White Russian recipe was first published in the Oakland Tribune in November 1965, it is the drink’s appearance in the 1998 movie The Big Lebowski that really rocketed it into the modern era, with the movie becoming a cult classic in 2002.  As the signature drink of “the Dude”, the White Russian achieved sacred status and has become a long-time favourite with expert mixologists and novice students alike.

How to Make a White Russian

White Russian Ingredients

  • 1 pt vodka
  • 1 pt coffee liqueur (try Kahlua or Tia Maria)
  • 1 pt cream

If one doesn’t have any cream to hand, they can usually sub it with milk (though this makes for a less creamy cocktail).

Method

  • Pour ingredients together over ice and stir.
  • Strain over fresh ice into an Old Fashioned Glass.
  • (You may wish to shake the cream beforehand to get it thicker and airier.)

Some people like their White Russians to be sweet and dessert-like, while others like them strong with a bit of a kick. Adjust yours to taste. When mixed, the cocktail should resemble an Irish coffee in flavour and be slightly lighter than caramel in colour. You’ll also find that the better quality your vodka, the smoother the drink will taste.

White Russian Variations

Why not try these fun variations on the classic White Russian to really get your tastebuds going? Many of these have been derived from brave experimentation and are popular in different places around the world.

  • Blind/Blonde Russian – Irish cream instead of cream
  • Colorado – cream & cola, equal parts
  • White Canadian – made with goat’s milk (!)
  • Anna Kornikova – made with skimmed milk; a ‘skinny’ White Russian
  • White Cuban – rum instead of vodka
  • Dirty Russian – chocolate milk instead of cream
  • Dirty Belgian – chocolate liqueur instead of coffee.

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