The White Russian is a slovenly but forgiving drink that ascended into the pantheon of cocktail classics not because it tasted like a divine nectar. It got there by hitching its wagon to a star.
That star was The Dude, played by Jeff Bridges in the 1998 movie, The Big Lebowski. The White Russian, which had been around for a few decades when the movie was made, would likely have faded into obscurity had it not been plucked from a room crowded with milkshake-like beverages of the era and ushered into the spotlight.
Comprised of vodka, coffee liqueur, and cream (or, in a pinch, and if you were The Dude, nondairy creamer), the White Russian began as one of a class of cream drinks particular to the 1960s and ’70s. They were about as complicated as an equilateral triangle, consisting of spirit, liqueur, and cream, often in equal measure. These belonged in a phylum that didn’t include spirit-heavy cocktails like the Old Fashioned, and they were sweet, easily quaffed, and all but impossible to mess up. They were the opposite of sophisticated. They were hugely popular.
The White Russian was likely first concocted in the mid-1950s or early ’60s. In 1965 it made its first appearance in print—in a newspaper advertisement for Coffee Southern liqueur, which included a recipe for a White Russian that called for an ounce each of vodka, cream, and coffee liqueur. The drink was also bolstered by Kahlúa, the Mexican coffee liqueur that came out approximately two years after Repeal. Using the Cold War as a marketing tool, in 1957 Kahlúa included Black Russians in its advertising (essentially, a White Russian without the cream), touting it as “subversive” and “a menace to an unhappy state of mind.”
When The Big Lebowski opened at the Sundance Film Festival, it was greeted with head scratching and yawns. In the Chicago Tribune, Mark Caro wrote that it was ”rambling, stylized, absurd, occasionally funny, occasionally coherent.” Gene Siskel found it “a big disappointment,” saying, “I just think the humor is uninspired.” But Siskel’s reviewing partner, Roger Ebert, seemed to get it: “The film is all about Jeff Lebowski’s equanimity in the face of vicissitudes,” he wrote. “He is pounded, waterboarded, lied to, and insulted.”
And he drank White Russians. A lot of them. The White Russian was to the movie what the ruby slipper was to The Wizard of Oz—a prop whose appearance conveyed aspirations, high in one case and low in the other.
The drink’s lurch toward immortality occurred when The Dude was grabbed by a burly chauffeur as he walked down the street sipping a White Russian. As he was hustled toward the back door of a limo, he held his drink high, shouting what would become a mantra for lovers of White Russians everywhere: “Hey, hey, careful man, there’s a beverage here!” (He spilled impressively little as he was thrown into the car.)
Is there another beverage that could have replaced the White Russian in The Big Lebowski? Rum and coke? Screwdriver? Jägermeister shooters?
Correct answer: No. The White Russian is simple to make, simple to drink, and appeals to those who are guileless of mind and buoyant of spirit, like The Dude himself. It is a liquid poem for those who fail to differentiate between day and night— you can drink it in the morning for the coffee and caffeine, and in the evening for the alcohol.
“What, exactly, is a White Russian?” asks an essayist in The Year’s Work in Lebowski Studies, an actual book actually published in 2009. “I want to suggest that the Dude’s approach to concocting and consuming this cocktail—casual, almost absent-minded—suggests a way around analogous ontological questions about late twentieth-century American urban masculinity, and the usual anxieties attendant thereupon.”
Which is to say … well, I’m not sure. But if he’s saying that the drink has all the scruffy, disheveled charm of The Dude, I fully agree. The White Russian is a drink that would, if it could, wear a ratty bathrobe.
Since the movie became a cult hit, the White Russian has undergone a revival. It’s established enough that other trends have come at it swinging, from which it has emerged largely unscathed. A blueberry White Russian had a moment in the early ’00s, and the Skinny White Russian was said to be served at hotspots in Hollywood around 2004. More recently, there’s been a wave of dairy-free White Russians made with almond and oat milks. “If you haven’t enjoyed a dairy-free White Russian in your bathrobe and slippers, then you aren’t living, man,” lied Food Republic in 2015.
So the next time you’re out, order up a tumbler of cinematic immortality. You may not be in the mood for an undistinguished drink with approximately as many calories as a Big Mac. But there’s evidence to suggest that, viewed properly, a White Russian can really pull your room together.
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