The Black Russian cocktail is one of the original drinks that popularized the combination of coffee liqueur and vodka, and is the forebearer to the better-known White Russian. Like other drinks, including the Moscow Mule, the cocktail’s actual connection to Russia is mostly nonexistent, meant simply to play off popular associations between the country and vodka, regardless of where it’s produced.
The drink itself is said to have been created in Brussels in 1949 by bartender Gustave Tops of the Hotel Metropole, who mixed it for the United States ambassador to Luxembourg, Perle Mesta. The simple combination of vodka and Kahlúa, a Mexican coffee liqueur, could also be seen as an early iteration of the now-resurgent 1980s classic, the espresso martini.
The original Black Russian gained modest popularity in the decades after its creation, owning the Mesta’s position as a prominent socialite in political circles at the time, famous for hosting lavish parties. In the 1960s, a variation that included cream gained favor, and the White Russian usurped its predecessor as the preeminent coffee-vodka combination of choice.
What’s in a Black Russian cocktail?
The original Black Russian is a simple two-ingredient cocktail. It features two parts vodka to one part coffee liqueur, mixed and served over ice.
While these specifications make a serviceable drink, a few dashes of orange bitters can help balance the liqueur’s sweetness and add a dimension of citrus to lift the cocktail’s core components. Similarly, while early recipes featured no garnish, later iterations called for a cocktail cherry, though this can add to the already noticeable sugary profile of the drink. A flamed orange peel is a good alternative to add a hint of smoky depth on the nose, and helps create a complementary structure similar to a classic Old Fashioned.
Almost any unflavored vodka will work in a Black Russian, as the spirit it known for its ability to adapt to nearly any flavor profile it’s combined with. If you wish to tailor your cocktail beyond the bounds of the original, you may be best off experimenting with various coffee liqueur options.