The amazing variety of hot coffee drinks seems endless; it is by far the largest category of warming winter drinks. If there’s an alcoholic beverage available, surely someone somewhere has put it in coffee to see how it tastes. Perhaps not surprising in this devoted coffee culture, it usually tastes good, whether it is the simple but satisfying shot of bourbon in a cup of coffee or an elaborate confection of multiple ingredients capped by a final dramatic flaming flourish upon delivery.
Let’s look at some of those variations:
There are numerous liqueurs that go well in coffee. What could be simpler than adding a jolt to your joe? Some of the most popular spikes are Frangelico, soft and fragrant with hazelnuts; Grand Marnier, that bitter orange and cognac combo; Kahlua, a coffee on coffee (D’oh!) enhanced with lavish sweet vanilla; Amaretto, with its distinctive almond flavors; Bailey’s Irish Cream Liqueur; and the effusive and slightly herbal Benedictine & Brandy.
Many spirits go nicely in coffee. The aforementioned bourbon is just one good example. A bartender friend likes tequila reposado in his coffee. Another bartender, more hard core, claims to enjoy that dauntingly bitter, black aperitif Fernet Branca in espresso. That stark combination might be a bit much for most people, although a milder Sicilian Averna amaro, with its rootbeer-cola flavors, can be quite bracing.
The classic spiked coffee, of course, is the Italian café corretto. For many years it was the favorite of the old men who liked to while away the time at the sidewalk ristorante or play bocce in the park. A café corretto (‘corrected coffee’) is a shot of espresso with a spike of grappa, that very Italian fiery clear spirit made from the leftover pomace of the grape pressing. The old paisans called it the heartstarter…although it could deliver such a jolt of combined caffeine and stark alcohol that it could conceivably become a heartstopper. Let’s just say that most cups of corretto don’t contain the finest examples of quality grappa.
The aficionados of both spirits and coffees invariably add that spiking coffee detracts from the experience of both coffee and spirit, and that the truly sensuous approach is to savor each together but separately.
Serve a particularly rich espresso with a small shot of exquisitely mature and richly aromatic Cognac XO, such as the Delamain Pale & Dry 30 yo, or the Pierre Ferrand Selection des Anges Grand Champagne 30 yo.
Or take a rich, chocolatey brew of single origin coffee with a rustic, earthy, full-flavored Armagnac XO such as the Chateau de Laubade or De Montal.
For unparalleled smoothness, match a medium-roast coffee with a velvety solera-aged Brandy de Jerez.
Classic Irish Coffee
There is something so perfectly right in a good Irish Coffee, something so deeply satisfying, warming and invigorating in that perfect balance of dark coffee, sugar, sweet whipped cream and the clean snap of Irish Whiskey it is an irresistible warming winter drink. But it has to be done correctly. A sloppy Irish Coffee is an abomination.
For the perfect Irish Coffee, you have two options: first, you can travel to San Francisco, head down to the Embarcadero, follow it around until you get to the Buena Vista Cafe. You’ll know you’re there when you can smell the waft of whiskey and coffee permeating the air.
No one makes more classic Irish Coffee than the Buena Vista, and no one makes it better. It’s the perfection that comes with making thousands upon thousands on a regular basis. Irish Coffee is the Buena Vista hallmark, and they’ll happily serve one up for you, any time of day. There’s none of that foolishness about whether it’s proper to drink Irish Coffee at the Buena Vista: if they’re open, it’s time to drink the coffee.
Many bars in Portland make an excellent Irish Coffee, but the one that truly excels is the one created by David Shenaut and crew at the Raven & Rose. How good is it? It’s better than the Buena Vista version; Shenaut uses a fresh, locally roasted Spella Caffe espresso grind for his base; Buena Vista uses regular carafe coffee. Indescribably rich, smooth and concentrated, the Raven & Rose Irish Coffee is the perfect spirited coffee to finish a brunch or dinner.
Your other option is to learn to do the perfect Irish Coffee at home. This requires finding precisely the right roast, grind, and blend of a coffee base. A good Irish Whiskey. A dab of sugar (Major Hint: use brown sugar, Demerara if you can get it!) in the coffee to establish the base.
The crowning touch, the final step, is a hefty dollop of fresh hand-whipped sweet heavy cream. The true secret to the great Irish Coffee lies here; this is the crucial part, taught by an ancient gnarled Irish bartender in Dublin: take a spoon and invert the bowl over the surface of the coffee; slowly and carefully slide the lightly whipped and aerated cream over the bowl of the spoon until the cream rests gently on top of the coffee. Don’t mix the cream and coffee, for the true beauty of the great Irish Coffee is to sip first through that mustache-inducing layer of sweet, sweet cream to get to that shocking rush of hot and biting black coffee and the following comforting warmth of Irish Whiskey.
Orleans Coffee/Café Brulot
A hot coffee drink with a slightly decadent New Orleans French Quarter flair, this is a blend of black coffee, cognac, and Benedictine liqueur. Take a strip of orange zest, stud it with cloves, and drop it to the bottom of your coffee mug. Blend French Cognac and Benedictine liqueur in a saucepan and warm it thoroughly. Pour the coffee in your mug, flame your Cognac/Benedictine mix, then do a cautious pour of flaming liqueur into the coffee.
Careful!!! This is dangerous and you should practice it extensively before you try it for real! Spill or splash and you’ll have a potential disaster on your hands. Literally.
A specific version of Orleans Coffee, the Café Brulot Diabolique, available at Antoine’s, Arnaud’s and Galatoire’s restaurants, is similar, but uses brandy alone as its alcoholic base.
The Orleans Coffee/Café Brulot is impressive as entertainment; it’s also very tasty as a warming coffee drink.
Flaming Spanish Coffee
Even more entertaining to make than the Orleans Coffee, and considerably more elaborate, Spanish Coffee is a crowd-pleaser. Do your bartender a favor though, and don’t order this during happy hour when he or she is busy. This drink takes time and care to make properly.
If you want to make it at home, here’s how.
Sugar the rim of a tempered glass or footed mug (so it will stand up to the heat). Pour a half ounce of 151 Overproof Rum into the glass and light it. Turn the glass regularly so as the rum flames it caramelizes the sugars—just caramelizes, mind you; don’t scorch or burn it away entirely.
As the rum flames, sprinkle small amounts of powdered cinnamon and nutmeg into the flame. This is both visually pretty (It sparkles!) and aromatizes the air with spice. The flame will go out as you begin to add the other ingredients—but if it doesn’t, simply put a cloth napkin over the top of the glass to smother it quickly.
Add a shot of Kahlua coffee liqueur, a splash of Cointreau, and fill with fresh black coffee. Put a dollop of fresh whipped cream atop, then sprinkle the powdered cinnamon and nutmeg over the cream.
Keep in mind this is only one variation of a Spanish Coffee—there are many out there, each with a different twist in ingredient or technique. You can find them easily with a google search.
Hot Cocoa Drinks
Legions of fans would never forgive us if we overlooked the category of hot cocoa drinks for winter warmers. There’s something so rich and comforting in cocoa, it’s always popular in winter. Add Peppermint Schnapps and it’s even better. Garnish with a peppermint candy cane for the festive holiday effect.
Of course, you could also double up on the chocolate by adding Godiva or double down with Chateau Monet Raspberry liqueur. And since chocolate goes with everything—or so chocolate lovers tell us frequently—don’t stop there: add that soulful and satisfying favorite, Grand Marnier Liqueur, for rich orange flavor laced with cognac.
We’ve managed to touch only the surface of the many and sundry warming winter drinks out there. There are hundreds more to choose from. Or you can get creative and devise your own, with your very own distinctive touch. What sounds good to you? Try it!