From classics like Irish Coffee, to new recipes like RumChata Iced Coffee, the flavors of liquor and coffee have long been a match made in heaven. Maybe it’s because coffee takes alcohol from a nighttime indulgence to an anytime delight, or because coffee helps neutralize the sedative effects of alcohol so the night can go on (and on). But, maybe, it’s simply because both are beloved drinks that can taste even better when combined. And one of the original coffee and liquor combination drinks is the classic Black Russian cocktail. Here’s how to make yourself one at home.
What Is a Black Russian Cocktail?
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. Today, it has led to many variations, like the Black Russian with an Orange Twist or Mocha 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 U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg, Perle Mesta. The simple, classic 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, in part due to Mesta’s lavish parties and position as a prominent socialite in political circles at the time. 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 is 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.
Black Russian Cocktail Recipe
Combine vodka, coffee liqueur and bitters in mixing glass filled with ice. Stir for 30–45 seconds until well-chilled. Strain into rocks glass over fresh ice. Hold lit match or lighter next to large orange peel until slightly burned, and squeeze peel over cocktail. Drop flamed peel in glass to garnish.
What Is the Best Coffee Liquor to Use?
While there is no best coffee liqueur for the drink, the original recipe calls for Kahlúa, a rum-based option that brings hints of vanilla and is familiar to most cocktail lovers. However, a wealth of options are available from both newer and established producers.
Australia-based Mr. Black Cold Brew Coffee Liqueur uses a wheat vodka base with arabica coffee and cane sugar that will add more caffeine to your drink. Another option is Leopold Bros. Frenchpress-Style American Coffee Liqueur, which is created using freshly roasted coffee in a water press for more pronounced coffee aromas.
For added complexity, St. George NOLA Coffee Liqueur pays homage to New Orleans-style coffee by including roasted chicory root. Jägermeister Cold Brew Coffee, from the famed German digestif producer, combines an Arabica coffee base with the brand’s signature herbal profile for those who want to include notes of black licorice and menthol in their drink. Fans of Negronis may enjoy J. Rieger & Co.’s Caffé Amaro, a lighter option that combines coffee with the herbal profile of a classic Italian bitter, including botanicals like cardamom, star anise, spearmint and orange peel.
What Does a Black Russian Taste Like?
The flavor of a Black Russian varies based on the exact ingredients used, but typically, it will taste like a boozy coffee with subtle flavors brought forward from the coffee liquor used, like botanicals or sweetness. Vodka is generally unflavored and will add a slightly stronger kick to the final drink.
What Is the Difference Between White Russian and Black Russian?
A White Russian uses the same key ingredients (vodka and coffee), but the drink is finished with a splash of cream to give the drink its hallmark creamy, frothy texture and lighter flavor.
Last Updated: September 19, 2023