An International Bartenders Association contemporary classic, the Black Russian combines two parts vodka with one part coffee liqueur. While many recipes specifically call for Kahlúa, other coffee liqueurs make excellent Black Russians. With coffee liqueur’s black color and vodka’s association with Russia, the name represents a simple reference to its ingredients. Traditionally, bartenders make the drink by pouring the vodka and coffee liqueur over ice cubes or cracked ice. A quick stir completes the drink, which most choose to serve in an old-fashioned glass.
Our recipe calls for shaking the two ingredients together with ice, then straining into an old-fashioned glass over a single large cube. Our taste testers preferred the additional dilution afforded by shaking a fairly boozy drink over a simple stir–if using this technique, be aware of how much dilution occurs. The choice of a single large cube also reduces the amount of dilution while consuming the Black Russian. Of note, this author scoffed at our tester’s preference and advocates preparing the drink by stirring it in a mixing glass, then straining it into an old-fashioned glass over a single large cube. No matter how someone makes it, the Black Russian remains a popular after-dinner drink offering easy preparation.
As explained in our White Russian recipe, most sources indicate that Gustave Tops, a Belgian barman, first created the Black Russian in 1949 at the Hotel Metropole in Brussels in honor of Perle Mesta, then the United States ambassador to Luxembourg. A curious legend states that she walked into the hotel’s bar and asked for “something chill,” while other sources state that Gustave Tops merely created the Black Russian in Mesta’s honor. Mesta, a Christian Scientist who reportedly never drank alcohol, likely never tried her drink. Further, vodka and coffee liqueur lack any obvious connection to Mesta, leaving the association another cocktail history mystery.
Even with the Cold War and vodka’s Russian association, American drinkers came to fully accept vodka as an integral spirit. With Kahlúa coffee liqueur emerging in popularity in the mid-1990s, the rich and strong Black Russian naturally experienced increased demand, which cemented its place as a classic while somewhat erroneously codifying Kahlúa as the drink’s de facto coffee liqueur component.
The traditional ratio of 2:1 vodka to coffee liqueur yields a fairly dry version of the drink. Using this ratio as a starting point, use more coffee liqueur or less vodka to create a sweeter drink. As mentioned, either by tradition or ubiquity, most recipes call for Kahlúa. However, various coffee liqueurs offer unique flavor profiles providing a series of excellent choices to customize the Black Russian. Some coffee liqueurs to try include:
- Jägermeister Cold Brew Coffee, which combines the brand’s famous fifty-six botanicals with the flavors of cold brew coffee. This results in a floral bouquet with chocolate notes that excels in cold drinks like the Black Russian.
- Leopold Bros Coffee Liqueur, a craft distillery from Colorado that takes freshly roasted coffee beans added to a water press and then combines it with a base spirit and raw cane sugar. This product pushes fresh coffee notes through a Black Russian making it an excellent choice.
- Mr. Black Cold Brewed Coffee Liqueur, an Australian brand that uses arabica coffee blended with Australian wheat vodka and cane sugar providing a higher level of sweetness than other alternatives. When using this ingredient in a Black Russian, expect a big coffee flavor with a stronger sweetness to come through.
- St. George NOLA Coffee Liqueur, another craft distillery from California that features the flavors of New Orleans-style coffee. Chicory root, sugar cane, vanilla beans, and Yirgacheffe coffee beans combine to provide a one of a kind flavor profile sure to amaze.
- Tia Maria, a widely available liqueur featuring a unique fusion of vanilla with high-quality coffee beans, Jamaican rum, and sugar.
While not as popular as its offshoot the White Russian, the Black Russian inspired countless variations, including:
- Black Magic, served with a dash of lemon juice and garnished with a lemon twist.
- Brown Russian, served in a highball glass topped with ginger ale.
- California Russian, an interesting variation served with a shot of triple sec and a slice of orange.
- Dirty Black Russian, served in a highball glass topped with cola.
- Irish Russian, served with a head of Guinness.
- Peri’s Black Russian, served in a highball glass, swapping out regular vodka for vanilla-flavored vodka and topping with cola.
- Vader, made by swapping out the coffee liqueur with Jägermeister.
Another variation, the Brando Russian, uses a couple of dashes of orange bitters with a twist of an orange peel as a garnish. On the subject of bitters, chocolate, mole, and orange bitters represent several interesting starting points for adding bitters to a Black Russian.
Many bartenders find that splitting the base in boozy drinks adds a level of complexity to the end product. In the case of the Black Russian, combining complementary brands of coffee liqueur brings layers of sophistication and subtlety. In other words, one plus one equals much more than two. Enjoy experimenting with the Black Russian, and please enlighten us and the world in the comments below.
- Japanese jigger
- Rocks glass
- Hawthorne strainer
- 1 large ice cube
- ice cubes for shaking
- 2 oz. Stolichnaya Vodka
- 1 oz. Kahlua Coffee Liqueur
- Place a large ice cube into the old-fashioned glass.
- Add Stolichnaya Vodka and Kahlua to the shaker
- Fill the shaker with ice and shake for twenty seconds.
- Strain the drink into the old-fashioned glass.