Iconic: The White Russian

July 7, 2020

James has a Martini. Carrie has a Cosmo. Jeff has a White Russian. 

Jeff, of course, is none other than Jeffery Lebowski, better known as The Dude in the Coen Brothers' cult classic The Big Lewbowski. It doesn't take a master's degree in screenwriting to enjoy the hell out of that movie. But you also don't need to be a bartender (or a bowler) to enjoy a White Russian (or eight).

The Coen Brothers are notoriously silent about their reasoning and rationale behind many of their creative choices. If I had the chance, there are dozens of questions I would like to ask. At the top of that list would be: "why the White Russian?" It is such a unique drink in the cocktail canon. The correlation between The Dude and the White Russian is unavoidable. Today, all my emotions and enjoyment derived from the cocktail are tied to and tainted with Dude-ism. What drew them to this obscure drink has seeped into our collective subconscious. 

Like most cocktails, we don't exactly know its origins. Remember: anything amazing that happens in a bar is witnessed mostly by drunk people. But the White Russian first pops up as a footnote to the now-lesser-known Black Russian. In the 1961 Diners Club Drink Book, there was an asterisk that suggested to add dairy to your Black Russian to make it a White Russian. Most would assume that these drinks are of Russian descent, but that appears to be untrue. It's most likely the case that the Russian lineage begins and ends with the use of vodka as a central ingredient. After all, Kahlua and Tia Maria - the other coffee-based spirit most often used - are Mexican and Jamaican, respectively. 

The drink's popularity skyrocketed in 1998 after Lebowski arrived in theatres. Throughout the movie we see Jeff Bridges make his drink the exact same way every time. He starts by dumping a handful of ice in his rocks glass. Then he free-pours equal parts Smirnoff, Kahlua, and whatever cream or milk he can scrounge. You also see The Dude imbibe in a few "Caucasians" at the bowling alley, where it looks like Gary the Bartender might even be shaking the drink. Although this is never seen on-screen, I like to think that Gary wanted to provide The Dude with the best service he could muster. Conversely, perhaps The Dude, in his Zen wisdom, wasn't a fan of the violence involved in shaking. He's often seen sticking his finger in his glass to stir. Of course in our 2020 post-Covid world, that action would be a fireable offence for a bartender. But I digress...

Most people would steer clear of a White Russian during these warmer summer months, but I would dive into this boozy pool headfirst. While I might not drink one in the middle of a 100-degree day - as another famous cinematic booze-hound once said, "milk was a bad choice" – it is perfectly suited for the warm summer nights.

Ok, cutting to the chase. Here's how I would make a White Russian:

Pour, into an Old Fashioned Glass

2oz Vodka

1oz Coffee Liqueur 

Leave aside for a moment

 

Pour, into an ice-less shaker

3oz Heavy Cream

Dry Shake, vigorously

 

Add plenty of Ice to your Vodka and Coffee Liqueur

Stir 2-3 times to combine

Top with Shaken Heavy Cream 

 

And you’ve got your White Russian! 

 

Let me finish with a few notes and recommendations. 

 

1) To all my lactose-intolerant/vegan friends out there: this drink is similarly magical with almond milk and I would imagine it's tasty with any dairy-substitute preference!

2) To all my lactose-tolerate/non-vegan friends: go big or go home on the heavy cream. 

3) If I wanted to be super fancy, I'd add a few dashes of Chocolate or Coffee bitters.

4) If you've made it this far, this is the best tip there is. If you have a Hawthorn Strainer, the type of cocktail strainer that has a spring, you should slide said ice-stopping-spring off and put it in your shaker while dry-shaking your heavy cream. This will aerate the cream, causing it to froth slightly, which adds a touch of levity to this otherwise rich drink.

5) If you need a real pandemic pick-me-up, skip the cream in favour of vanilla ice cream. Ok, that might actually be the best tip…