This does not happen often. Unless you DIY, you’ll have to go looking; the heyday of flambee was decades back. These days, when you encounter booze and coffee in tandem, it’s most often via the ubiquitous espresso martini (vodka, espresso and coffee liqueur), a modern classic. Invented in the 1980s by London bartender Dick Bradsell, it’s best known for Bradsell’s tale of inventing it for an unidentified model, who’d asked him for a drink that would “wake me up and then [mess] me up,” only of course “mess” was not her chosen verb.
I love a potty-mouthed-supermodel origin story as much as the next girl, but the espresso martini doesn’t usually draw me in. I prefer to go further back into the cocktail catalogue. Long before Bradsell’s drink added more confusion to the meaning of the word “martini,” drink makers were mixing their stimulants and depressants into conflagrants. After all, why settle for something that would just “wake you up and then [mess] you up” when you could have something that, if prepared wrong, would also burn the house down?
Setting cocktails on fire adds all sorts of flavor, bringing out the vanilla notes of barrel-aging; mellowing harshness in younger, brash spirits; caramelizing the sugars in syrups; toasting the spices and releasing the aromatic — oh, the hell with it. All of that may be true, but the main reason to set cocktails on fire is that it looks really badass.
James Louie, one of the owners of Huber’s Cafe in Portland, Ore., saw this when he ran across Spanish coffee — a flamed blend of high-proof spirit and coffee — in the late 1970s. He was on a dinner date with his soon-to-be wife at the now-closed Fernwood Inn in nearby Milwaukie and saw how customers were transfixed by the Spanish coffees being served there. “We stole the idea,” he says. “We brought it back but embellished the presentation to make it our own.”
Make it their own they did. The Oxford Companion to Spirits and Cocktails locates the origins of Spanish coffee in Coffee Grog, a drink detailed by Pedro Chicote, a famed Spanish bartender, in his 1928 cocktail book. It came to America in the ’60s and had runs in Massachusetts and Florida, “but found its true home at the venerable Huber’s Cafe in Portland, Oregon.”
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After borrowing it from the Fernwood Inn, Huber’s was still honing the drink when a college friend of Louie’s suggested adding triple sec and a ground nutmeg topping. A customer taught Louie how to light the match that ignites the drink using only one hand, now part of the standard presentation at Huber’s.
For safety reasons, the restaurant eventually enhanced its own enhancements: Originally, they would rim the glass with sugar, add the 151 rum and set it alight, then pour in the triple sec and Kahlua.
But “on a really warm day, the triple sec, even though it was only 30 proof, the room would get warm enough that it would make the triple sec pretty volatile,” Louie says. Back in the early ’80s, a bottle or two of triple sec exploded. Luckily, no one was hurt.
“I would like to say we tried to make it part of the show,” he says jokingly. “The amazing thing is one time when we had a bottle explosion right at the table, and both the man and the woman were covered with triple sec … but that didn’t scare them. They said, ‘We want to go ahead and have our Spanish coffee.’ So we started the whole show over again and they had their Spanish coffee, even though they were kind of sticky.”
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Lest things get stickier, Huber’s changed up its process: Since then, the rum and triple sec are put in the glass, flamed there, then topped with Kahlua (which at 20 percent ABV will not ignite; it douses the fire), then coffee and whipped cream.
Louie estimates that Huber’s serves 200 to 300 Spanish coffees a day, the staff working at impressive speed and volume. “You haven’t reached the black belt of Spanish coffee until you can make three at a time.”
I’ve reached enough of a comfort level making Spanish coffee that I can recommend the process to careful cocktailers. I’m still working up to attempting cafe brulot, a New Orleans tradition dating to the late 1800s, where brandy, citrus and spices are warmed and then ignited in a special bowl.
Traditionally, preparing the drink includes pouring the flaming brandy down a long zest of clove-studded orange peel, “so what you see is the fire going down in a circular motion around that orange peel into the bowl,” says Augie Spicuzza, senior maître d’ at Arnaud’s. The flaming brandy opens up the cells of the orange peel and cloves, adding its flavor to the drink. “You do that three or four times, going back to the bowl and pouring it, all still on fire, then you extinguish it with coffee and add a little sugar.”
Spicuzza says staff work up to making the cafe brulot. “You have to go through multiple training classes before you’re able to do it,” he says, and even then, once you’ve completed the training, you do it with backup from a more-seasoned staffer the first few times you make it for guests.
At Antoine’s, where the drink probably originated, they don’t pour the flaming brandy down the citrus peel. “In a crowded restaurant, we try to keep the fire as much as possible in the bowl,” says Lisa Blount, who handles public relations for the restaurant. Then she sent me a picture of a stunt that more experienced waitstaff have been known to do: splashing the flaming drink onto the tablecloth around the brulot bowl, so that the table appears to be on fire. It’s gasp-inducing, but Blount says it extinguishes itself quickly and barely leaves a mark on the cloth.
I will not be trying that at home. And when I do eventually attempt cafe brulot, I will probably try it outdoors, perhaps sporting an elegant hazmat suit. For now, though, I’ll stick to smaller, delicious fires, using the Spanish coffee template for other conflagrated caffeine.
When working with flaming drinks
- Tie your hair back, roll up your sleeves. Don’t let anything on you dangle into the fire. Please don’t send me letters reading, “Duh.”
- Drinks will ignite easily if they’re 50 percent ABV (100 proof) or more, but you can get a flame from spirits at 40 percent ABV (80 proof); some lower-proof combinations flame weakly in some circumstances.
- Following the proof guidelines above, the template is pretty flexible. Start with a 151 rum and try adding cinnamon, chocolate, or fruit or nut liqueurs with the coffee.
- Warmth helps release the fumes that ignite a drink, so it’s good to warm the glass or mug before adding the booze. The warmth will help the drink catch fire, and a pre-warmed mug is less likely to crack.
- Work with small portions of your chosen spirits, and keep the bottles well away from open flames. Do not pour from any bottle of spirits into a flaming drink. It’s all too easy for that flame to leap up a high-proof liquid and follow it to the bottle you’re pouring from. (Come on, people. Have you not seen “Die Hard 2”?)
Flaming Alpine Coffee Cocktail
Scale and get a printer-friendly version of the recipe here.
This basic template — an alcoholic mixture high-proof enough to ignite, and a sugared rim, coffee and a dollop of whipped cream — is a highly flexible one, lending itself to a variety of luxurious flavor combinations. You will need a stemmed Irish coffee mug or another heatproof mug, and a kitchen torch or long matches.
Total time: 10 mins, not including making the coffee and whipping the cream.
Make Ahead: You’ll want to have the whipped cream and hot coffee ready before making the drink.
- Superfine sugar, to rim the glass
- 1 ounce 151 rum, preferably Goslings Black Seal
- 3/4 ounce green Chartreuse
- 1/2 ounce crème de cacao or another chocolate liqueur
- 4 ounces hot black coffee
- Whipped cream, for serving
Have ready your hot coffee and whipped cream. Warm an Irish coffee (or other heatproof) mug by filling it with boiling water.
Line a saucer with fine sugar. Discard the hot water from the mug, wet the rim of the mug, and dip it into the sugar, rolling it so the sugar sticks to the rim.
Add the rum, Chartreuse and chocolate liqueur to the warmed mug, and swirl to allow the mixture to warm up a bit.
Using a kitchen torch or long match, light the mixture in the glass. Let it flame for 10 seconds or so, swirling it to melt the sugared rim. (It’s okay if the sugar doesn’t melt fully.)
Gently pour the hot coffee over the fire in the mug, top with the whipped cream, and serve immediately.
From Spirits columnist M. Carrie Allan; Tested by M. Carrie Allan.