It’s not that the White Russian is a bad drink, says Los Angeles chef and bartender Chris Amirault. But it has a serious image problem.
“Aesthetically, it doesn’t look very pleasing,” he explains. “You go to a bar and it’s Kahlúa, vodka and cream shaken together with bad ice,” resulting in an “extremely watered-down version that looks like murky tap water.”
The key to rehabilitating the White Russian, says the chef and co-owner of Italian American pop-up ParmBoyz and Otium (currently closed), is updating the ingredients and holding it to the same standards of presentation as any other classic cocktail.
His El Duderino cocktail pays homage to the White Russian, as well as to the central character of The Big Lebowski, who famously swills the creamy cocktail throughout the 1998 film. Before Otium closed in March for the pandemic, the drink featured on its last menu, which drew inspiration from films made in L.A. about L.A.
The White Russian blueprint is clearly visible in the drink: coffee liqueur and whole milk (in place of cream), with mezcal and tequila as the spirituous anchor in place of vodka, served over a large, slow-melting piece of ice.
But it also contains surprises.
“For this one, I wanted to combine part of my Asian background in there,” Amirault recalls, so he introduced subtly smoky oolong tea, along with spice notes supplied by Ancho Reyes liqueur and a dash of Angostura bitters. “Mezcal and coffee make a ton of sense,” he explains. “Smoky and earthy—coffee can be both of those things as well.” It creates a flavor profile he cheekily describes as “coffee and cigarettes.”
Amirault put particular thought into how he would sweeten the drink. “Poorly made White Russians can be very very sweet, and we didn’t want that,” he says. For the coffee element, he selected Mr Black, noted for having much lower sugar content compared to other coffee liqueurs, plus a small amount of Ancho Reyes, a liqueur made with smoky-sweet ancho chiles. A measure of vanilla syrup bolsters the coffee notes. Each component adds a tempered sweetness in tandem with layered flavor.
The mixture is then clarified in a centrifuge, creating a White Russian crossed with clarified milk punch. “I don’t feel like I need to drink a whole cocktail with a lot of cream in it,” Amirault recalls thinking. But milk-washing added lactic acid without the cream and preserved the plush texture. “It creates a White Russian that looks in theory like an Old-Fashioned, which I thought was really cool,” says Amirault. (He also offers a home bartender–friendly version of the recipe that does not require a centrifuge.)
The flavors were complicated enough, he decided, so the presentation should be streamlined. “I didn’t want to hit it with fancy garnishes or tuiles.” Instead, he strains it into a coffee mug set on top of a rug coaster. “It ties the cocktail together,” Amirault quips. (It’s a Lebowski joke. Look it up.) Though he admits that it bears little visual resemblance to the original, the essence of the White Russian remains intact. “It’s like a makeover,” says Amirault. “Some drinks can’t dress themselves.”