This creamy cocktail is beloved (to the point of obsession) by fans of the hit cult film The Big Lebowski. But in the bar world, the White Russian doesn’t get the love it deserves. Most bartenders (and customers) deem it to be too sweet and heavy, or too tacky. We agree: If you make a White Russian with a dusty old bottle of Kahlua, bad, cheap vodka and expired cream, then yes, it’s a bad drink. But, if you dedicate the same time, energy and care to making a White Russian as you would if you were making a Manhattan, the results can be astonishing. Two bartenders are doing exactly that and giving the cocktail the makeover it needs to please today’s palate.
At Wallflower in New York, head bartender James Lombardino’s take on the White Russian turns the cocktail on its head while maintaining the drink’s three-ingredient structure. For the Eddy Teach, Lombardino swaps out vodka for Cruzan Black Strap rum, which adds “texture, deep notes of molasses and a hint of licorice.” He also skips the cream and, instead, makes the cocktail vegan with coconut milk. “Drinks for the people,” he says. Finally, instead of using a traditional coffee liqueur like Kahlua, Lombardino uses an Italian amaro he infuses with coffee beans. “There are plenty of great coffee liqueurs in the world, but they tend to bring only one note: coffee,” he explains. “Cynar amaro is loaded with different herbs, roots and spices, making it much more complex. After we infuse the coffee into it, we have a liqueur that just explodes with flavor.” And while the O.G. White Russian might be a terrific, sweet and creamy replacement for dessert, this version is even better. “This is fantastic as an after dinner drink,” says Lombardino. “Not only because of the hint of coffee, but also the amaro is there to work as a digestif.”
On the West Coast at Truss and Twine in Palm Springs, California, head bartender Dave Castillo is also breathing new life into the antiquated classic. Castillo’s love for the White Russian stems from the fact that it was one of his favorite cocktails to order when he first started drinking—and in his words is “nearly impossible to f*ck up.” For his twist, he uses gin as the base, which he infuses overnight with Vietnamese coffee. “It has that very distinct fudge-like flavor,” he says. “I figured out this is due to the fact that the Vietnamese like to flavor their coffee with chicory and butter.”
He then adds St. George Spirits NOLA Coffee Liqueur (which also has a touch of chicory) as a substitute for Kahlua. “It tastes more like actual coffee rather than coffee candy,” he says. He tops everything off with cream, then shakes and strains it over ice, and garnishes the cocktail with grated coffee bean. “It ties everything together,” he says—just like Lebowski’s famous missing rug.