Cocktails and Spirits with Paul Clarke: Mixing Caffeine and Alcohol Isn't Always a Bad Idea

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Caffeine + booze is going beyond this. [Flickr: ReeseCLloyd]

What with all the buzz, pardon the pun, about Four Loko and other caffeine-cranked beverages that deliver a whopping payload of alcohol and that, according to Stephen Colbert, "allow you to fall off a bar stool all night long," it's easy to forget that the practice of mixing a boozy bump with a caffeinated zip isn't exactly new.

As Frank Bruni wrote recently in the New York Times, most liquor-laden coffee drinks are straight from the dessert menu, the drinks all too often defined by "a milky, messy nimbus of Baileys or a cloying slick of KahlĂșa."

Today, of course, both cocktails and coffee are being enjoyed on a particularly geekish level, and Bruni writes that now coffee and liquor are encountering each other in a glass in ways that no Irish Coffee connoisseur could have anticipated. It was, as he writes, to be expected, as bartenders such as Troy Sidle from The Randolph at Broome in New York trace "a beverage frontier that is bound to get more attention over the next few years, as cocktail worship and coffee fetishism inevitably overlap."

Rather than the rich, sweet drinks that have long defined the genus of coffee cocktails, the drinks being mixed at places such as the Randolph and Fort Defiance in Red Hook, Bruni writes, are introducing more adventurous flavors into the mix, such as the bitter-orange quality of Ramazzotti amaro, the crisp bite of apple brandy and the measured lushness of Danish cherry liqueur.

And while coffee drinks have long been considered best suitable for after-dinner sipping, or as a warmer on a cold afternoon, Fort Defiance reports that sales of these drinks are most brisk around 10 p.m., when the drinkers "want to wake up but [...] don't want to sober up—not yet," says St. John Frizell, the bar's owner.

Of course, bartenders venturing down this path don't just have a good selection of liquor to work with. Artisan roasters such as Intelligentsia and Stumptown are providing restaurants and bars with coffees as extraordinary in flavor as some of the carefully aged spirits on the back bar. Taking the combination a step further, St. George Spirits recently introduced Firelit, a brandy-based coffee liqueur made with single-origin beans from Oakland-based Blue Bottle Coffee; and earlier this month, House Spirits in Portland, Ore., added a rum-based coffee liqueur to its apothecary line, made with organic Guatemalan beans from Cellar Door Coffee.

While a concentrated blast of caffeine and alcohol doesn't look like a good idea to pretty much anyone right now, the practice of enjoying a moderate measure of both shouldn't be tossed out with the Four Loko bathwater. Do you enjoy drinks that match coffee with a little something extra? Let's hear your favorites.

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