The White Russian is the unpretentious, straightforward combination of vodka, Kahlúa and milk. Born in the early 1970s, the underappreciated rocks drink has spawned an amazing number of highly successful progeny, and as such, it now represents a substantial branch of American mixology.
The White Russian’s appeal is timeless. Vodka is clean and versatile. Add in the milk, coffee liqueur and fill the glass with ice. It’s like drinking an iced coffee with a wee bit more gusto. The caffeinated treat is just as tempting at the start of one’s night as it is at the end. There is beauty and grace in simplicity, and the most beautiful and graceful of all simple concoctions is the White Russian.
However, it’s the drink’s structural simplicity that has earned it a “thumbs down” from the cocktail elite. The litany of criticisms include that it’s a tad sweet, high in calories, built in short glasses and somehow an agent for global Communism. The most damning of the charges is that the drink has drifted away from the mainstream and is now passé.
The White Russian passé? Sir, in the immortal words of Jeff Lebowski, “Well… that’s just your opinion, man.” If the White Russian has grown out of style, then so has chivalry, civic pride and taking your best girl out on a Saturday night. Its only crime is that it’s delicious, quickly prepared and as unassuming as The Dude. Rabid fans of the Coen Brother’s 1998 cult classic, “The Big Lebowski,” have returned the White Russian — or the Caucasian as The Dude refers to it — to its proper place in the firmament of American classics.
Wanna learn more? Following are the best-kept secrets behind America’s greatest White Russians.
• Lineage. As is the case with most legendary figures, the White Russian comes from noble stock. The drink is the product of the marriage of two equally successful drinks. The Sombrero is simply Kahlúa and Cream, which is as natural of a combination as adding cream to your morning cup of coffee. It’s even a pleasure watching as the two ingredients swirl together and slowly transform into one unbeatable taste experience. The other parent is the Black Russian, one of the basic building blocks in mixology. While little more than vodka with an added dose of Kahlúa, the iced drink is delectable in its simplicity. Combine the two drinks, and you’ve created a legend.
• Spirits world. When it comes to Black and White Russians, almost every type of spirit works. For example, substituting the vodka in a Black Russian with tequila creates a Brave Bull. Add cream to a Brave Bull to make a White Bull. The combination of brandy and Kahlúa is called a Dirty Mother, and splashing in a spot of cream changes it into a Dirty White Mother. Both of the Russians also can be made with light, dark or spiced rum, as well as Irish, Canadian, Bourbon and many types of Scotch whiskeys.
With the finest flavored vodkas at your beck and call, consider making a specialty White Russians using a flavored vodka as the base. Two popular examples are the Raspberry White Russian, which is made with Stoli Razberi, Kahlúa and milk, and the Vanilla White Russian, which is prepared with Absolut Vanilia. Additionally, the model works for chocolate, coffee/espresso, pineapple, pomegranate, coconut, mango and orange vodkas, to name but a few. Essentially, any flavor that complements the taste of coffee and milk will work in a Russian.
• Java liqueurs. Look under the hood of most White Russians, and you’ll find they contain Kahlúa, which by far is the best-selling coffee liqueur in the world. The liqueur is produced in Mexico from a base of distilled sugar cane steeped with vanilla beans and mountain-grown coffee.
However, there are other coffee-liqueur options available with which to construct fabulous Russians. One such welcome addition to the backbar is super-premium Patrón XO Café Tequila Liqueur. Imported by the same folks who make Patrón Tequila, XO Café is made in Mexico from aged añejo tequila and the pure, natural essence of coffee. The liqueur is crafted with a minimal amount of sweetener, which makes it drier and more of a coffee-flavored tequila than a typical liqueur. The marriage of tequila and coffee works beautifully, making Patrón XO Café a superb ingredient for use in White Russians.
Tia Maria is a delicious coffee liqueur from Jamaica. It’s made from a blend of premium, aged rums that have been steeped with chocolate and Blue Mountain coffee beans, which are the most expensive and highly sought after coffee beans in the world. The somewhat dry, robust palate of coffee, rum and chocolate flavors make it ideally suited for any Russian-based assignment.
• Dairy state. The final act in a White Russian is the splash of milk. Some bartenders use whatever creamer is readily available, such as half & half. In fact, the last ingredient can be milk, chocolate milk, half & half or cream. The decision of which to use is an individual one. For the record, a White Russian finished off with skim milk is referred to as a Skinny Russian. On the other end of the spectrum, you can use melted ice cream in lieu of the milk for a calorie-laden quaff.
Other options do exist, beginning with using a cream liqueur instead of milk. There are numerous brands from which to choose, including Baileys, Carolan’s and Brady’s Irish creams; Amarula; Rum Chata; and Coole Swan cream liqueurs. Each will alter the drink in its own inimitable way.
• Modifier options. The White Russian is a marvelously versatile drink to experiment with. It especially adapts well to being modified with liqueurs. Imagine splashing in some Chambord atop a White Russian. Chambord’s luxurious raspberry flavor is a near perfect complement to the Russian’s coffee and cream taste profile. The same is true for Frangelico, Disaronno Amaretto, Agavero, Irish Mist and Tuaca. For an added dose of vim and vigor, consider adding Jägermeister, Harlem Kruidan or Yukon Jack into the mix.
Another option is to change how the drink is formulated. For example, serve the White Russian in a tall glass and add some cola to make the Colorado Bulldog. Back off the vodka, and you’ve created a Smith & Wesson, or if you’d prefer, substitute club soda for the cola and the drink becomes a Smith & Kerns.
It’s hard to conceive of a drink with as many creative permutations as the White Russian. The Dude abides.