How ‘The Big Lebowski’ Turned the White Russian into a Milk of the Gods

As the turn of the century neared, the White Russian was just another bad, outdated cocktail from the 1970s. Then The Dude arrived and ensured that it wasn’t just ‘another caucasian, Gary’
How ‘The Big Lebowski’ Turned the White Russian into a Milk of the Gods

For 25 years, fans of The Big Lebowski have quoted the lines, shared the memes and shit-talked the Eagles with reckless abandon. Such die-hards definitely still abide the Dude, and so do we, which is why we’ll be spending the next five days celebrating a quarter century of Lebowski. So grab yourself a White Russian, lay back on your favorite rug and take it easy — just like, you know, the Dude.

White Russians are inextricably linked to The Big Lebowski. If you go into a bar and order one, someone’ll reference that movie. No site that gives a recipe for making your own is free from vague allusions to it, or “Careful, man, there’s a beverage here”-type comments.

As could sensibly be expected for a milk-based alcoholic beverage, the White Russian was never the coolest of drinks. Getting loaded on both booze and lactose has always been something of a connoisseur’s choice. Even the most hardcore of boozehounds has a limit when it comes to cream. 

The drink originated in the 1960s, a variation on the earlier Black Russian with the addition of cream, both to add an extra element of richness and to dilute the alcohol — a Black Russian contains only vodka and coffee liqueur, making it extremely boozy. The Black Russian itself began nowhere near Russia; it was created in Brussels in Belgium in 1949, invented by barman Gustave Tops for Perle Mesta, the American ambassador to Luxembourg. The name came from its color and inclusion of vodka, which made the name-change with the addition of cream fairly straightforward. (White Russian can also refer to a member of the wave of anti-Communists that left Russia after the Russian Revolution of 1917, but the name of the drink seems unconnected given that the Black Russian came first.)

While whoever came up with the white variation has been lost to time, it was an established drink by the 1970s, its peak era in terms of non-Lebowski-related popularity. By the 1990s it was kind of a lame order, the kind of drink favored by dudes in leisure suits who were partying well past their peaks. “A White Russian is very much a symbol of 1970s and 1980s drinking. Pretty much everything from that era has the capacity to be absolutely delicious, but often isn’t,” explains Elliott Ball of The Cocktail Trading Company in London. “But people are amazed by how good they can be.”

In 1997, the Coen Brothers were inspired to make White Russians the drink of choice for The Dude, the instantly iconic protagonist of The Big Lebowski, in part due to Jeff Dowd, one of the inspirations for the character, and his own (brief) love of them. As Dowd told HuffPo, “Do I drink White Russians all the time? No. I drank White Russians the same way when you were in college — one month or one season was Tequila Sunrises and the next time was Harvey Wallbangers and then White Russians. The reason it was White Russians is you could have a lot more fun with a White Russian than you can with say, a vodka soda.”

But in a post-Lebowski world, a White Russian is, to a certain type of cinephile, as Faygo is to Juggalos: a drink potentially enjoyed more for its associations than its taste. 

Elements of the drink also seemed perfect for the character, as one of the moderators on the r/lebowski subreddit happily explains: “Coffee liqueur, vodka, creamer, ice… not a lot of ingredients but perhaps more effort than you’d think the Dude — a likely candidate for laziest man worldwide — would put into a drink. Especially one which his strict regimen dictates he drinks daily. I mean we’re talking about a guy who doesn’t seem to own socks and whose footwear tends not to have laces. So why all the fuss over this drink? For one, it’s tasty. The creamer and coffee liqueur have a rich sweetness that mostly masks the alcohol flavor from the vodka. It’s damn near a dessert. Not a digestif per se, but a bowl of ice cream or a heaping spoonful of tiramisu. We never see the Dude eat, save some mints he picks through at the mortuary. It’s as though a meal is too exhausting for this man of perpetual ease. Skip the main course and let’s get straight to the sweet ending.”

Big Lebowski fans happily quaff White Russians at conventions while talking about the virtues of Dudeism. There are White Russian-inspired beers, like Brew York’s The Dude Abides. Ice cream magnates Ben & Jerry were both born in 1951, two years after Jeff Bridges and Jeff Dowd, and would have been contemporaries of the Dude — if Cherry Garcia and Phish Food didn’t give it away, those dudes like their weed — and a fan-made suggestion of an explicitly White Russian-flavored ice-cream flavor, Dude Food, went viral in 2010, seeming like a match made in heaven. Although it wasn’t real, there had been a White Russian flavor variety available from 1986 to 1996, as immortalized in the company’s “Flavor Graveyard.” They later had a short-lived variety, From Russia With Buzz, that boasted coffee liqueur and espresso fudge chips. 

The resurgence also brought White Russian variations, some of which were more about being clever than delicious — made with skim milk rather than cream, it was an Anna Kournikova (i.e., a skinny white Russian). Recipes for variations including everything from peanut butter to pumpkin spice can be found online, something that would make White Russian fans of the 1970s, insistent on equal parts vodka, coffee liqueur and cream, shudder.

However, as Ball points out, there’s a lot more understanding of flavor these days than in White Russians’ heyday. “With a lot of these classic recipes, if you make them exactly according to these strict specifications, you end up with a dogshit concoction,” he tells me. “Anything that requires equal parts usually isn’t the right version of itself, but can be amazing as long as you’re willing to screw with it a bit.”

For his part, Ball suggests going easy on the cream. “Most cocktails don’t really work when there’s more than about 50 milliliters of a single ingredient in there — once you’re whacking loads of half-and-half in there you usually don’t have a great drink. If you go short and boozy and limit the half-and-half to maybe 25 milliliters on the top, there’s no reason it can’t be delicious. A lot of the older recipes come out less like a cocktail and more like a milkshake you can’t drive home after.”

He also suggests the addition of a small amount of salt. “With any drink that’s meant to be sweet and full-bodied, you can’t necessarily use acidity to balance it,” he says. “This means you can end up with a drink that feels a bit lackluster or one that comes across too sweet. This is where salt comes in. We add what seems like an obscene amount of salt to ours, and it tastes absolutely amazing.”

The White Russian pre-dates The Big Lebowski and will in all likelihood outlive it — the movie is a cult classic, but every decade will realistically mean it strikes a chord with fewer and fewer people, and while drinks go in and out of fashion, getting fucked up on milky coffee is likely to always hold some appeal. 

And if you disagree, yeah, well, you know, that’s just, like, your opinion, man.

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