The Dude abides, and so does his drink, the White Russian. But the history of the White Russian stretches back about 50 years before The Big Lebowski was released in 1998.
This cocktail’s story is a tale of evolution rather than a moment of brilliant creation. During and before the 1930s, vodka wasn’t popular in the U.S.—or respected. In 1933, William Guyer, the author of the cocktail tome The Merry Mixer, went as far as to define vodka as “Russian for ‘horrendous.’” Despite the spirit's reputation in America, the 1930 edition of the Savoy Cocktail Book included four vodka cocktails. One was "the Russian": an equal parts mixture of vodka, gin, and crème de cacao. Gross.
Luckily, "the Barbara" was also included. This concoction is much more appealing: two parts vodka, one part cream, and one part crème de cacao. At the time, cream wasn’t used in cocktails outside of the frilliest frou-frou drinks one could find. After World War II, the Barbara was renamed "the Russian Bear," perhaps with cream's aforementioned reputation in mind. It didn't take long before "the Russian Bear" and "the Russian" began to merge into the same drink as bartenders experimented with ingredients, and the gin was thankfully dropped. Once again, this cocktail came to be known simply as "the Russian."
Other changes were at play. Coffee liqueur was growing in popularity. Kahlùa was first shipped to the U.S. in the 1940s and it quickly gained a foothold. Bartenders took to using it in place of other ingredients in existing cocktails, like crème de cacao or cream. With one substitution, "the Russian" came one step closer to becoming the White Russian we know and love today.
At least one bartender is given full credit for inventing the White Russian's sibling, the Black Russian (which is the same drink, minus the cream). As the legend goes, and as Fabulous Foods reports, bartender Gustav Tops created it at a Brussels hotel in 1949 for U.S. Ambassador Pearl Mesta. (Despite this story’s prevalence, there’s little historical documentation to back it up.)
At the time, Tops's creation would have simply been called "the Russian." It's hard to pinpoint when the two cocktails finally split their shared moniker, but some evidence points to the late 1950s or early '60s. As Esquire's David Wondrich writes, the 1961 Diners' Club Drink Book used the name “Black Russian” to refer to the cream-free tipple. In March 1965, a recipe for the White Russian was printed in an advertisement in the Boston Globe for Southern Comfort's now defunct brand of coffee liqueur, Coffee Southern.
The White Russian remained a somewhat popular drink for more adventurous vodka enthusiasts until the 1998 release of The Big Lebowski catapulted it into becoming a pop culture institution.
Nowadays, there’s a Lebowski-themed bar in Iceland with a dedicated White Russian menu. Lebowski-themed parties and festivals serve White Russians by the gallon, and a quick Google search for "Big Lebowski drinking game" yields tens of thousands of results—some less advisable to follow than others.
But even forgetting for a moment its connection with The Dude, the White Russian is delicious, decadent, and still packs a punch.
HIT THE LAB
3/4 oz. heavy cream
3/4 oz. Kahlùa (or other coffee liqueur)
1 and 1/2 oz. vodka
Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker. Add ice, and shake until chilled through. Strain into a chilled Old Fashioned glass (or over ice, if you prefer).