In Praise of the White Russian

Coffee, cream, and vodka drinks we're not ashamed to love

white russian recipes
Ingalls Photography

Like "The Dude," Jeff Bridges' dissolute bowler in the 1998 film The Big Lebowski, I have always felt a personal connection to the White Russian. It was the go-to tipple for my grandmother—the same woman who daintily claimed she got tipsy "just smelling a drink" during a Prohibition-era first date with my grandfather. And it's a point of pride that, in my 20s, I knocked back an unspecified number of White Russians with her at a bar mitzvah, resulting in a family kick line. Oh, the power of that trashy mix of vodka, coffee liqueur, and cream. While it doesn't have speakeasy roots or a fashionably bitter edge, bartenders have taken a shine to the drink lately, updating it with artisan coffee liqueurs and infused syrups. But even with these high-minded tweaks, it remains an easy-drinking libation. The "Russian" refers to vodka, and the Black Russian was created in 1949, with just vodka and coffee liqueur. It's unclear when dairy entered the picture. Cocktail historian David Wondrich cites 1961's The Diners' Club Drink Book, which mentions two vodka-and-Kahlua drinks, one with cream. But most experts point to the mid-1960s for the White Russian's official debut. That's surely when its popularity hit its stride, spilling over into the sweet-tooth '70s. Today, the White Russian abides, albeit in delicious new incarnations.