Behind the Drink: The Black Russian

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In the late 1940s, Perle Mesta, the American ambassador to Luxembourg, was hanging out in the bar at the Hotel Metropole in Brussels. The establishment’s bartender, Gustave Tops, decided to make a signature drink for her, the Black Russian. The Cold War was just starting, so creating a dark, mysterious drink by mixing Russian vodka with Kahlúa was appropriate for the time.

Mesta, by the by, was supposedly the inspiration for Sally Adams, the lead character in Irving Berlin’s Call Me Madam—played by Ethel Merman when the show opened on Broadway in 1950. And she was known in Washington as “the Hostess with the mostes’.”  It’s said that President Harry Truman played the piano at one of her parties, while General Dwight Eisenhower apparently sang “Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes” at another. There’s no record of what she was serving at these soirees, but the Black Russian must have been a contender.

I’ve no idea who added milk or cream to the Black Russian in order to turn it into a White Russian, but it happened in the mid-1960s as far as I can ascertain. That drink was, of course, immortalized in 1998 when Jeff Bridges, playing the Dude in The Big Lebowski, quaffed eight of them during the course of the movie. (He dropped a ninth on the floor.)

I’m blissfully ignorant about the creator of the Mudslide too, but I do know that we had to wait until 1974, when Baileys Irish Cream was launched, before some bright spark decided to use it as a substitute for the dairy cream in a White Russian.  I’ll bet that Gustave Tops didn’t have a clue what he was starting…

Black Russian

Contributed by Gary Regan
INGREDIENTS:

  • 2 oz Vodka
  • 1 oz Kahlúa
  • Glass: Old fashioned

PREPARATION:
Pour both ingredients into a mixing glass filled with ice. Stir, and strain into an old fashioned glass filled with fresh ice. (This recipe renders a fairly dry version of the drink. You can use more Kahlúa and less vodka to make a sweeter version.)

Gary Regan is the author of numerous books about spirits and cocktails, including The Joy of Mixology and The Bartender’s Gin Compendium. He is also co-host of ArdentSpirits.com and a Liquor.com advisor.

Locations: Belgium Brussels
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  4 Comments.

Discussion

  • Andre C. Cerqueira posted 7 years ago

    Nice Gary!

    I translate in portuguese for my friend and mentioned you and your books!

    Come drink one caipirinha with me, in Rio sometime!!!

    Thanks mate!

  • Steven Nicolle posted 7 years ago

    It will appear this evening I forgot to mention.

  • Steven Nicolle posted 7 years ago

    I liked the story of the Black Russian Gary. I posted it on my blog and mentioned you. Thanks!

  • H. Joseph Ehrmann posted 7 years ago

    Gary, What's the story with the the White Russian being called a "Caucasian" as well?


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