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[Photograph: Michael Dietsch]

Pousse cafés are a class of cocktails that are largely forgotten these days. The term itself is obviously French, and it means push coffee, or coffee chaser—the idea seems to be that these drinks were introduced as a digestif, or an after-dinner, after-coffee drink to aid digestion.

The ingredients in historic pousse cafés are just what you normally see on after-dinner drinks menus: liqueurs such as crème de cassis, Chartreuse, or Grand Marnier; port; cognac; etc.

The problem with pousse cafés is that it's just too easy to go overboard with them. Use too many ingredients, and you risk making a sugary mess of a drink that tastes like flat soda pop. But if you go easy and choose two or three well-selected ingredients, you have something that's not just pretty to look at, but also a tasty and fitting end to a meal.

How to Build a Pousse Café

The biggest trick to making one of these is to understand how the layering effect happens. Blame physics. Every liquid—no matter whether it's water, antifreeze, or 36-year-old Dalwhinnie—has a specific gravity, which is nothing more than a measure of the liquid's density.

When you make a pousse café, you layer the drink by adding the heaviest liquid first, building to the lightest at the top. Generally speaking, grenadine or crème de anything are likely to be the heaviest ingredients you'd add to a pousse café, so it's good to start there.

Pure spirits—gin, rum, vodka, brandy—are light in comparison to liqueurs, so they're good to go on top, if you're using them. (And if you want theatrics, you can top off a pousse café with overproof rum and light the damn thing, but be careful if you do.)

You can find charts online that show the specific gravities of various liquors.

What You'll Do:

  1. Start with your heaviest ingredient, say, grenadine. Pour 1 ounce into the bottom of a glass and wait a moment for it to settle. (Pousse café glasses are traditional, but where the heck do you find them? I used a single-malt scotch tasting glass for the photo, but any narrow glass with straight sides will work.)
  2. Take a bar spoon and hold it in the glass, touching the side, with the back of the bowl facing up.

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[Photograph: Michael Dietsch]

  1. Slowly pour each subsequent ingredient over the bowl of the spoon, so it settles lightly over the top of the ingredient below.

A Simpler Layered Drink

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[Photograph: Jennifer Hess]

Of course, there's no need to relegate a beautiful layered cocktail to the meal's end. In his book Imbibe!, David Wondrich describes a pre-Prohibition drink called the Princeton, made of Old Tom gin and port. It makes a lovely aperitif, both for the eye and the palate. Since the port is heavy, it settles to the bottom of the glass if you pour it gently along the inside edge. The drink starts off all gin and citrus, but as the port makes its way to the sip, the flavor changes as the ingredients mingle.

If you want the recipe, check out Paul Clarke's post, but here's a visual on the technique of sliding the port down the side of the glass.

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[Photograph: Jennifer Hess]

Do you make layered drinks at home? What's your favorite layered cocktail?

About the Author: Michael Dietsch writes A Dash of Bitters. He is an accidental bartender, boozologist, and striped bass. He lives with a spirited female and crazy felines in Providence.

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