David Jameson

A Brief History of Coffee Cocktails

Irish coffee

I recently did a sesssion in The Lab at the London Coffee Festival – this is more or less what I was talking about in case you missed it!

Legend has it that London bartender Dick Bradsell invented the Espresso Martini in the 1980’s as an answer to a request from a famous model for a drink to “wake her up and “mess” her up” It’s a fairly simple bartending staple, consisting of a single espresso, a single measure of coffee liqueur, sugar syrup to taste and a double measure of vodka. It is shaken over ice, strained and served garnished with three espresso beans in a classic martini glass.

It looks, well, pretty much like a big espresso, and tastes, well, pretty much like a big sweet espresso with alcohol in.  It also does more or less exactly what it says on the tin.

Irish coffee has a similarly well-worn origin story. Joe Sheridan is credited with its invention at Foynes (Later Shannon Airport) on the west coast of Ireland. The story goes that in the 1940’s a Pan Am flight from the US landed on a miserable, cold, wet winter night and Sheridan added Whisky to the coffee to warm the passengers up. After one of the passengers asked if they were being served Brazilian coffee, Sheridan told them it was “Irish coffee” Standardised ingredients are nothing other than coffee, whisky, cream and sugar, with the coffee whisky and cream to be mixed before the cream is layered on top.

It looks like a pint of Irish Stout (or a big espresso) and is sweet, hot and boozy. It would definitely warm you up after a rough transatlantic flight!

Both these cocktails originate in an era when coffee was a singular descriptor. You would have coffee flavoured chocolates or coffee flavoured liqueurs. Coffee is a rich, dark, sophisticated indulgence and it’s a sign of strength, experience and good taste if you can handle an espresso. Very much an acquired taste. At home, most people’s understanding of coffee would be Nescafe, Mellow Birds or Maxwell House, and the first wave of out of home coffee drinking is established in Italian café’s and restaurants. The coffee which went in to these cocktails was probably pretty basic. Roasty flavours would be dominant and you would expect it to be strong, bitter and dark.

Because of this, coffee is an ingredient to be overpowered almost. The coffee liqueur in the martini levels and balances the coffee flavour to something consistent and familiar, the sugar syrup is there to mask the bitterness, and the lavish amount of alcohol is there so as to leave you feeling as though you had your money’s worth.

That isn’t to say this can’t be a brilliant drink though.

The Irish Coffee is a challenging drink. A noted travel writer credited with bringing it to San Francisco eventually gave up trying to make a perfect Irish Coffee saying it ruined three great drinks, coffee, whisky and cream. In his book, “The Curious Barista’s Guide to Coffee” Tristan Stephenson describes the classic Irish Coffee as “an abomination of epic proportions” saying that nuances are lost and subtleties abandoned leaving you with wood flavoured coffee and hot alcohol fumes.

Not a fan then?

I believe that this all stems from the Irish Coffee’s origins in commodity grade coffee, and entry level Irish Whiskey. When you improve the quality of both ingredients and work hard to find a good, balanced flavour profile between them, I think you can make great Irish Coffees!

It is this difference that brings me to Speciality Coffee. Coffee which is graded at 84 points or above on the Q scale. Coffee which tastes like Brazil nuts, caramel and 70% chocolate, or lychee, passionfruit and strawberry. These are flavours which mixologists can take and work with to develop, enhance and fundamentally change their cocktails. Speciality coffee gives us the range to treat coffee as a very mobile ingredient which can be moulded to fit a gap in your drink or be used as a basis to build around – a long way from the monochromatic days when coffee was “just coffee”

But why do cocktails matter to Speciality Coffee? It’s magnificent on its own. Why would you ever want to disrupt it with alcohol? Only as recently as February 2013 some of the leading lights in the UK Speciality Coffee scene were advocating the death of the Coffee In Good Spirits Championship due to lack of relevance and interest.

Now, arguably the world’s highest profile Barista, Matt Perger, is the World Champion, we’re about to go into the 2015 competition with a healthy field of competitors and London’s most cutting edge and credible cocktail bar, White Lyan, has been converting into a coffee shop, Black Lyan, during the day. All of this supports the idea that this competition, and the wider topic of coffee cocktails has become important to speciality coffee. But why?

My thoughts on this are that cocktails are a nice analogy to speciality coffee. The flavours you combine when you make a martini for example dictate the finished drink. If you enjoy cocktails, you know when you go to a great cocktail bar, like the American Bar at the Savoy, that the £16 you will spend on your cocktail in there will be money well spent on a well thought-out, well-made drink by an expert bartender and you know you will enjoy the finished product. When you buy a jug of glow-in-the-dark cocktail from a more modest pub chain for a fiver you expect a bit less finesse.

If you get a great Irish coffee from Gordon Howell at the Attic in York you ask yourself “why does this taste so much better than the Irish coffee I have had before?” This gives your barista the opportunity to talk you through the selection of the coffee and why it pairs so well with the whisky they picked and you end up leaving thinking “wow, I didn’t realise the coffee was so important” and it then leaves you asking more and more questions about the coffee you drink every day.

Coffee cocktails can be a great gateway into Speciality coffee for people who otherwise would not end up in that arena.

So how do you go about building a coffee cocktail and developing a recipe?

For me, all my cocktails are designed around a purpose. For Irish coffee I know the criteria – I have 4 ingredients, coffee, cream, whisky and sugar, and I know how it will be scored. I like to start working with a specific coffee first and work spirits around to fit the coffee I have. Once I have found a coffee I like the look of, I identify the dominant characteristics. Is it sweet? Is it fruity? Is it chocolatey? Is it tart? Is it full bodied? Is it light and delicate? Once I establish this I will look for spirits to complement these attributes. For this Irish Coffee I am using Los Lajones Natural Caturra from Panama. This is a delicious sweet, fruity, full bodied, low acidity sherry trifle of a coffee. Next I will look at a selection of whiskies to pair it with. I tried two Irish whiskies and a Highland Single Malt, Dalmore 15. This worked superbly with the coffee because of the sherry cask finish that the distillery apply. Once I am happy with the components it is a question of tailoring the ratios and production methods to get the best out of the combination. With this Irish coffee the end result is a drink which reminds me of mince pies and brandy butter. Perfect for a warm spring evening!

I find hot coffee cocktails to be a challenge – in fact I know of very few hot cocktails at all. To create a hot cocktail for the Coffee In Good Spirits Chmpionship I decided to take my inspiration from Irish Coffee and try to do something a bit different.

I remembered from a previous job that Raspberry and Almond combine to create a cherry-like flavour, so I blended Chambord Black Raspberry liqueur with Disaronno Amaretto and added coffee. The net result was great – it tastes like Black Forest Gateau – chocolate and cherry, despite having neither ingredient in the recipe!

Ultimately it is a bit of trial and error. Get an idea, test it, see how it works and adjust it until you are happy with it, then serve it and see what your friends, neighbours or customers think!

You don’t need really expensive equipment either, I can make all these drinks with a £20 aeropress and a £40 hand grinder

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