The Big Lebowski is a finely tuned comedy propelled by nuance and subtlety, with a plot reminiscent of the best works of Thomas Pynchon and Don Delillo, and a passive protagonist who’s more an observer of the story than he is an active player within it. The Dude is totally unassuming and yet completely self aware, wrapped up in a case of mistaken identity that’s made personal by the destruction of his beloved rug (it really ties the room together).
Part of what makes the character of The Dude so impressive is that he experiences absolutely no personal growth over the course of the movie. The Dude abides, after all. But that doesn’t mean that he’s a poorly written character, the exact opposite is true. The Dude is an extremely detailed, impressively nuanced, and vividly understated human portrait. At the end of the movie we feel like we truly know this lover of Creedence Clearwater Revival, bowling, and a dessert cocktail from the 1970s.
The White Russian is an ingenious signature cocktail to assign to The Dude and, as good plotting should, its inclusion in the film adds an extra layer of intrigue. It’s milky, beige, and slightly antiquated. It’s anachronous — probably something The Dude got into during his glory days.
But is it any good? That’s exactly what I wanted to find out. The original recipe for a White Russian is simple. Pour 2 ounces of vodka, 1 ounce of coffee liqueur (or Kahlúa, as The Dude prefers), and 1 ounce of cream over ice in a standard rocks glass. It’s a cocktail that’s often dubbed a classic, though you won’t find it on many menus, probably because its prevalence in modern drinking culture is due in large part to The Dude himself.
In other words, the cocktail is kind of a joke. And, in my humble opinion, it certainly tastes like one. The White Russian is one of the few vodka cocktails that forces the burning flavor of the vodka to the fore, pairing an awful taste with a rotten nail polish aroma. It completely undermines the purpose of most vodka based mixed drinks which is, if we’re honest, to hide the taste of vodka. And then the cream is, well, overwhelming — comprising more than a third of the actual drink. In fact, my glass was rimmed with specks of fat and milky refuse halfway through the experience, which was wholly unappetizing. The Kahlúa was, easily, the best thing about this drink, leaving me to wonder if a shot of the liqueur over ice would have been a better cocktail on its own.
And that’s when I had an idea. Surely, I thought, I can improve this horrible, horrible cocktail…
BEVERAGE 1: The “That’s Just, Like, Your Opinion, Man”
The White Russian is, at its core, a dessert beverage. In my first attempt to improve it, I decided to lean into that affectation completely and create a White Russian milkshake. My goals were to minimize the sting of the vodka while accentuating the natural flavors of the coffee liqueur.
Here’s what I went with:
1 oz Vodka
1 oz Kahlúa
1 Scoop Jeni’s Ndali Estate Vanilla Bean
1 oz Stumptown Cold Brew Coffee
The ice cream is a much more enjoyable substitute to — gag — the whole cream, and the coffee ads an exquisite layer of flavors, all complex, all working with the Kahlúa instead of against it. When blended together, the texture is infinitely more enjoyable, especially considering that the sweet flavors actually match the mouthfeel of the milkshake (and please understand, I hate using the word “mouthfeel,” but when we’re talking about the way cream feels in your mouth I’m left with few options).
All things considered, this cocktail/milkshake uses each component effectively, allowing the flavors to build off one another without any one specific taste taking hold. That kind of aggression will not stand, man.
I give this cocktail a score of “You want a toe? I can get you three toes.”
BEVERAGE 2: The “Nobody F*cks With The Jesus!”
As much as I enjoyed a milkshake version of the White Russian, it didn’t really feel like a proper cocktail. For my next attempt, I decided to continue with the same themes while keeping everything in a tidy rocks glass.
My second recipe is as follows:
1 oz Vodka
1 oz Kahlúa
2 oz Horchata
Once again my main goal was to replace the cream with something that made more sense. I decided to try a bit of authentic, dairy-free horchata. Surprisingly, the vodka and Kahlúa brought the taste of cinnamon in the horchata right to the surface. It blended with the coffee flavors in the Kahlúa to cut through the sting of the alcohol while maintaining the weight of a well mixed cocktail. Unlike the original White Russian, this version is lighter and less sweet, which I actually prefer, because it helps to avoid the undesirable, bloated sensation that comes with sugary drinks.
That said, I really don’t think that horchata was ever meant to mix with vodka. Maybe clear rum would have been a better idea? Though, at that point, we’d barely be talking about a permutation of the traditional White Russian. In the end, the result was a bit watery, and altogether unremarkable. As far as cocktails are concerned, it looks as if everyone f*cks with the Jesus.
That’s why this cocktail earned a score of “You want a toe? I can get you two toes.”
BEVERAGE 3: The “This Is Not Nam. This is Bowling, There Are Rules!”
Finally, I decided to combine the best parts of both cocktails to make a variation of the White Russian that was really, truly, as spectacular as the movie that first introduced me to Creedence Clearwater Revival.
Once again I decided to replace the cream and accentuate the coffee liqueur:
1 oz Vodka
1 oz Kahlúa
2 oz Vietnamese Cold Brew Coffee
Now THIS is a very complicated cocktail, Dear Reader. You know, a lotta ins, a lotta outs, lotta what-have-yous. It’s complex, perfectly understated, and undeniably delicious. It takes the best qualities of The White Russian — if there are any “best” qualities to pirate — and makes them better. The coffee from the Vietnamese cold brew elevates the Kahlúa while masking the vodka and the sweetened condensed milk (vital to Vietnamese coffee) provides a nuanced creaminess that’s perfectly balanced in taste and consistency.
The final — and easily the best — cocktail receives a score of “You want a toe? I can get you five toes.”
Even after making three different drinks that were unquestionably better than the original White Russian, it’s hard for me to say that I made an improvement on The Dude’s favorite cocktail. I guess that’s the way the whole durned human comedy keeps perpetuating itself down through the generations, westward the wagons, across the sands of time until…aw look at me I’m ramblin’ again. Well, I hope you folks enjoyed yourselves. Take ‘er easy, dudes.