Spanish coffee is a special drink, in that the further you get away from Spain – geographically, culturally and whatever else you might actually be served in this country – the more interesting and specific the cocktail becomes. It’s like a telephone game, where you start with “hippo” and at the end you have a perfect English sonnet.
Order a boozy coffee in Spain and you’ll get what they call a Carajillo, just an espresso and a spirit, either rum or brandy. Order one in Mexico and you’ll also get something called a Carajillo, but Mexico has its own lovely, dessert version: that same espresso, this time with a sweet vanilla liqueur called Licor 43. Order one in Portland , Ore. , however, and you literally won’t get any of those things. What you will get instead is a “Spanish coffee”.
In downtown Portland, a few blocks west of the Morrison Bridge is Huber’s, which sits on 3rd Avenue as it has since 1910. Huber’s is a restaurant, the oldest in the city in fact, but it would also be correct to call Huber’s something of a spectacle. It’s not because the uniform of the staff – dress shirts with wing collars, waistcoats, red ties and sometimes garters, which (miraculously) manages not to look the least bit costumed in the middle of the mahogany and stained-glass windows in the restaurant – but rather than for 50 years, Huber’s has served, flamboyantly and with great aplomb, a flamboyant blend of brewed coffee, triple sec, Kahlua and blister-proof rum what they call a spanish cafe.
The drink’s history is murky, unsatisfying and ultimately irrelevant: In the 1970s, owner James Louie was inspired by a boozy coffee drink of the same name at a nearby restaurant, now long closed, which They would have themselves inspired by the Mexican Carajillo, which was itself inspired by Spanish (that phone game). What’s relevant is what Louie did when he brought it back to Huber, creating, seemingly out of nowhere, the show they became famous for.
Order a Spanish coffee, and it will go like this: First, your bartender will coat the rim of a glass with sugar and begin by pouring triple sec rum and 151 proof in large cascading arcs, swirling while pulling the bottle. glass until the jet of liquid is 3 to 4 feet long. Despite the acrobatics, not a drop of this liquid will touch the ground. The bartender will then do a neat little trick where he (I went deep on YouTube – they all seem to be men) using one hand separates then lights a single match from a matchbook and lights the high strength rum , encouraging the blue flames by twisting and swirling the glass for about a minute, caramelizing the rim of the sugar. He will then add a few more long beams of Kahlua and top with hot coffee, then smother the heat with cold semi-whipped cream, layering like a blanket. I suspect they directly hire juggling teams or maybe circus. It is sincerely impressive.
Ultimately, the biggest surprise is how good Spanish coffee tastes. It’s like having a phenomenal meal on a plane, a bonus you never expected. It’s balanced, warm, strong, and rich, the sort of drink more or less perfect for the endless gloom in America’s weirdest city, or for the rest of us currently in the dead of winter.
“But why,” you might insist, “is a combination of Caribbean rum, Mexican liquor, and Dutch triple sec called a Spanish coffee?” Nobody knows. It does not matter. Now calm down, you’re missing the show.
Dampen the rim of a glass with a citrus wedge or a little water and dip it in a bowl of sugar, to coat the top half inch or so of the glass with sugar. Add the rum and flambé (make sure your glass is tempered and can withstand the heat). Let this burn for 60-90 seconds, tilting and rotating the glass to caramelize the sugar (this helps to see it done). Once the sugar is blackened and candied, add the coffee liqueur and hot coffee, then coat with cream. Garnish with a pinch of cinnamon.
NOTES ON INGREDIENTS
Proportions: The proportions above are almost exactly what Huber will tell you himself and are reasonable. However. Order a Spanish coffee from Huber (or, again, watch videos on YouTube) and let me know if you think they only pour 1 oz. of 151 in your glass. Or less than 2 oz. of Kahlua. The measurements you will receive from Huber are completely independent of any type of recipe they will describe. Pouring a long stream of sighted liquid does not lend itself to precision. At Huber, it’s an incredibly strong drink, but still delicious. There is a lot of room for error.
Rum: Huber’s uses 151-proof rum, but they don’t seem brand specific. Videos show both Bacardi 151 and Cruzan 151. When I was there in October it was Cane Run 151. If you’re shopping for 151 just use what you can find.
It needs to be very strong to ignite, but strictly speaking it doesn’t need to be 151. My favorite rum I’ve tested for this is just a little shy, the Plantation OFTD (Old Fashioned Traditional Dark , or “Oh Fuck That’s Delicious”, depending on who you ask) a 138-proof rum that burns and sizzles as well as 151 and adds a depth that was welcome.
Triple sec: You need orange liqueur here. It’s good without it, but that’s mostly what makes it a Spanish coffee. Without the orange, it can be mistaken for its Irish cousins. The orange is what makes it itself.
Between triple sec (based on vodka) and curaçao (based on brandy), opt for triple sec. My perennial recommendation is to use Cointreau or Combier – pricey for a blender, yes, but it’s the best. However, it is less important in this drink than in others such as the Cosmopolitan, for example, where it is vital. Huber’s uses the 42 proof bottling of Bols Triple Sec, which works very well for them. I simply urge you to note, here and elsewhere, that a cocktail is only as good as its weakest ingredient, so a crisp old liquor can and will ruin your entire drink.
Coffee liquor: Huber uses Kahlua, and you should too. For general applications, I don’t believe Kahlua is as good as its competitors. This drink is different – the coffee liqueur doesn’t have to be so rich and roasty when side-by-side with 3 oz. coffee in the drink itself. I tried Borghetti and Tia Maria and all the third-wave hipster coffee liqueurs in side-by-side tests, and none were as good as Kahlua. Color me surprised.
Cream: Just like with the amazing Irish Coffee, the crema is the real stroke of genius here. A cold layer of cream on the drink tempers the alcohol and reduces the need for precision with sweetness or proof. You want to half whip it, either with a whisk or put it in a jar and shake it for 30-60 seconds, until the volume increases by about 50%. This way it becomes light enough to thicken while still being pourable and layered on top.
Garnish: Huber’s uses pre-ground nutmeg, which is fine. From a mixological standpoint, freshly ground nutmeg is a must, but it turns out that this particular drink doesn’t benefit much from the particular intensity of fresh nutmeg. For me, a pinch of cinnamon powder goes best with orange and coffee. You can also not garnish it at all. It doesn’t matter that much.
The show: One of the theories about the origin of the name is the Spanish tradition of the long pour “escanciado” cider. Is it important that you pour all over your body? Of course not. And unless you have a lot of practice or plenty of spare alcohol, I don’t recommend it.
Is it important that you set it on fire? No, for two reasons: 1) Burnt alcohol tastes different, but once it’s seasoned with orange and Kahlua and coffee and cream, you can’t really tell, and 2) put 151 on fire for 60 seconds doesn’t reduce the alcohol as much as you might think. It heats up the glass and the liquid mixture, both of which are important, but only reduces the proof from 151 to about 142, which doesn’t really matter (you’d have to let it burn for three to four minutes to get a 151 ounce up to 50% alcohol). The fire is just to caramelize the rim of the sugar and put on a show, and while both are wonderful, neither is crucial to a delicious drink. Feel free to omit the sugar rim and the fire, and the Spanish coffee is always worth your time.
Each week, bartender Jason O’Bryan prepares his favorite drinks for you. Discover his old cocktail recipes.