Coffee and alcohol usually keep to themselves. They maintain their own hours, their own social spheres, their own groupies. But the border between the two has become a bit blurred of late, with adventurous bartenders mingling them in novel ways.
Not that doing so is exactly new. Forebears of the trend, of course, include Irish coffee, the White Russian, and the vodka espresso. The legendary London bartender Dick Bradsell once explained that he invented the last one—often called the espresso martini—for an overworked model looking for an efficient way to both wake up and get drunk. (Ah, the eighties!) The tipple became an instant modern classic.
Bradsell’s brew-heavy beverage consisted of espresso, coffee liqueur, vodka, and simple syrup. Today, morning joe more often crops up across the South in a supporting role, not the lead. Some cocktails, such as the Beast of Bourbon at Sweet Liberty in Miami Beach, use just a half ounce of house-made coffee liqueur. You can also find menu options with coffee soda (Steadfast, in Nashville), nitro coffee (Ration & Dram, in Atlanta), and coffee bitters (the Crunkleton, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina).
John Lermayer, co-owner of the year-old Sweet Liberty, recommends using “spirits with a good backbone,” like Jamaican rum or overproof bourbon. “Coffee is one of the more intense flavors on the planet,” he says. “It dominates anything you put in it.” Even so, a heavier roast tends to work best, says Tristan Stephenson, a London-based bar consultant and author of The Curious Barista’s Guide to Coffee. A light roast is “too subtle and too fleeting to make a mark on a coffee-flavored cocktail,” he explains. (A tip to remember the next time you’re stocking the bar for a noon-game tailgate.)
That attention to coffee’s nuances helps explain the rise of these high-octane concoctions. We’re in the middle of the so-called third wave of the coffee evolution, in which the sourcing, roasting, and brewing of beans have become artisanal pursuits. And in some cases, baristas trained to suss out those subtleties have made the move from bean to bar and brought their expertise with them. To Tristan Ferchl, a former barista now shaking drinks at the Catahoula Hotel in New Orleans, bars offer better pay, fewer shifts involving the words “six a.m.,” and a broader social role. “When you’re a barista, it’s like you’re a stepping-stone on somebody’s way to work,” Ferchl says. “But you’re automatically someone’s hero if you’re a bartender.”
Ferchl didn’t wait long to apply his know-how to the Catahoula menu. “Coffee creates a finishing touch,” he says. “It offers a bridge to other parts of the palate.” Using the right bean blend in the right proportions, he says, lets you skip lemon or lime and still infuse a drink with a bright acidity and tartness.
He named the Breakfast at George’s cocktail after George Brown, the founder of Old Forester whiskey. An adaptation of the shakerato, a nonalcoholic Italian café classic, Ferchl’s interpretation “takes it a step further by adding everything else you need in a well-rounded breakfast: eggs, bourbon, and a hint of citrus,” he says.
Morning, meet happy hour.