'The Dude's' Drink of Choice: The White Russian
There is a real sense of unity in the room due to it.
The White Russian is probably familiar to you since it's the favorite cocktail of Jeffrey Lebowski, the character in The Big Lebowski by the Coen Brothers. In context, it means that he goes with the flow and takes it easy. The cocktail is also said to abide, which in turn can also mean that the Dude takes it easy. White Russians have been abused, enjoyed, forgotten, and celebrated for the last 70 years, yet they persist with a zen-like equanimity, like The Dude himself.
The Black Russian was originally a vodka and coffee liqueur cocktail, but after a while someone came up with the idea to add milk to it. In 1949, vodka was still considered a foreign curiosity, so it was invented around then. In spite of the fact that vodka is obviously an Eastern Bloc drink, Smirnoff had been distilled in Connecticut for more than a decade by the time this cocktail was invented, which makes it funny because there is no Russian in it whatsoever. During the Cold War, ordering "White Russians" was harmlessly subversive fun, since both vodka and coffee liqueur were sold in them.
We wouldn't have had nearly as much fun if we called it the White Person From Connecticut.
Nightclubs weren't about to stock milk cartons in the '80s. It enjoyed popularity in the '60s and '70s, but by the '80s, it was passé, too sweet, too creamy and too basic. In about 15 years, the White Russian had indeed settled into that ignominious life and seemed destined to become one of those forgotten cocktails that can only be consumed by great aunts on special occasions. To achieve a new life, White Russians must be made with a carton of milk purchased with a post-dated $0.69 check, as played by Jeff Bridges in the movie The Big Lebowski.
White Russians are now available in every bowling alley in the known universe, or they would if they knew what was good. From Dresden to Glasgow to Reykjavik, there are Lebowski-themed bars with White Russian menus all over the world. The Big Lebowski is often watched at friends' parties or in bars, and the same thing is always served. And why not?
This is essentially a vodka Frappuccino made alcoholic, sweet and creamy, and so simple that a gorilla could make it. It isn't demanding much. If you make it mangled, it'll still be pretty good. Some recipes call for semiwhipping the cream and layering it on top with some grated nutmeg, but I think that misses the point. White Russians aren't meant to be taken seriously. They are jokes. There's just one problem: it's delicious.
My theory is that is why the Dude chose it as one of his favorite drinks, and why it is a perfect match for him. This cocktail was just one more good joke in a story rife with jokes before the film itself became famous. Despite the fact that he drinks White Russians, the cocktail isn’t about status, glassware, or elegance. It’s neither masculine nor feminine. There’s nothing complex or complicated about it. No special tools or preparations are required. Whether you're a bowler, a nihilist, an urban achiever or anyone who likes something creamy and delicious, it's there for you. It remains.
- 1.5 oz. vodka
- 1 oz. coffee liqueur
- 1 oz. half and half
- 1 small pinch salt (optional)
Mix all ingredients in a rocks glass with ice, or pour the whole thing into another container and then dump it back in the rocks glass. Do not shake. Do not garnish. Enjoy!
NOTES ON INGREDIENTS
The classic coffee liqueur is Kahlua. It has a relatively mild flavor of coffee, so it works surprisingly well with this drink. Tia Maria is acceptable, but not so good. There are some 3rd-wave hipstery bars like Mr. Black, St. George NOLA that make absolutely outstanding Espresso Martinis, however, they make them too strong for this cocktail. I have always found that a White Russian made with Mr. Black and heavy cream is bitter and pretty unappealing.
My absolute favorite coffee liqueur is Borghetti Espresso Liqueur, which is based in Milan. If you are planning a night around White Russians, or if you love them, it's worthwhile to go out of your way to find it. It's a little specialized, so you won't find it in the supermarket. However, it has the sweetness and body of Kahlua, and a deeper flavor.
It doesn't really matter what kind of vodka you use for the White Russian, although, for most cocktails, it doesn't matter at all, and so it is especially true for this cocktail. The brand of vodka does not matter at all. Use whatever you like.
While you may be able to experiment with other spirits, aged rum comes to mind, once you start messing with White Russians, the simplicity of the drink starts to fade and you find yourself tweaking and topping more than you intended. If you don't use vodka, then it's a totally different cocktail with different rules. I'd just use vodka myself.
My personal preference is to use half and half. For me, whole milk is too thin, and heavy cream is too rich, so half and half is a fantastic compromise. However, if you use heavy cream, maybe reduce its amount a little.
A small pinch of salt enhances the flavor of cocktails that contain protein or fat, as well as minimizing some of the bitterness of coffee and alcohol.