The Coffee Cocktail has no coffee in it, it’s just called that because it looks like a cup of coffee. In reality, this is a port and brandy flip, a style of cocktail made with a whole egg, from the time of Grover Clevelend, Her Majesty the Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, and the Kaiser. It feels and tastes like it too, in a stodgy way that reminds one of mutton chops, frock coats, enormous bustles, ornate bonnets, and parlors with way too much stuff in them, but don’t let that fool you. It’s an old cocktail, yes, but so is an Old Fashioned, and we still drink those.
One glance at the recipe will tell you this is not a modern classic. It’s fairly basic in it’s construction, equal parts of brandy and port with a little sugar and an egg, but that’s what cocktails were in the 1800s. The ingredients look like popular choices from the time when brandy was favored over whiskey, and in the U.S. Jerry Thomas was busy writing it all down. As far as these old recipes go, we can cite Thomas only as the journalist, the bartender who first noted it, but the style and variety of cocktail was limited and generic. Was Thomas the first to make a Coffee Cocktail? It doesn’t matter. He preserved a record of it, and it’s still made just like it was when such cocktails were reserved for the well healed and the newly minted magnates of industry and oil.
Brandy, in Thomas’ case it would have been cognac, and port at the time of the Coffee Cocktail were not commonly available as they are today. Yes, they were commonly available at a price beyond the means of many, but the same could be said today. Today, however, you can find a bottle of reasonable cognac and reasonable port in any quality liquor store or supermarket, so modern wins when it comes to quantity, even if quantity diminishes the quality of many choices. In 1887, however, getting things from France and Portugal to thirsty people in the U.S. required a bit of time and planning.
The old timers would have had ideas about how to make a bottle of French brandy last, and the same for port. Port is fortified wine, not unlike sherry or vermouth, which means it has a limited shelf life once opened. Not like wine, which must be consumed fairly soon after uncorking, but also not like brandy, with is liquor and will keep. How long it lasts after opening is a matter of type, and, where port is concerned, it’s quite easy to parse.
Port, a sweet, red, fortified wine, comes from Portugal. Mostly it’s served after a meal, with dessert, or as part of an evening with some fruit and stilton. A good port is sublime, complex, slightly robust and more or less sweet depending on the bottle and style. The styles of port can be thought of as levels from young to very, very old, and across this spectrum the complexity and robustness increase with age. The age of a port doesn’t always equate to better, it’s just different, and that’s what makes port so wonderful. It’s all good, it just differs from bottle to bottle and from style to style.
Ruby port is the most common style of port, with most selections also being among the youngest. Ruby port is stored in concrete or stainless steel which preserves both color and body. Most ruby port is blended for consistency and is meant for early consumption. Ruby port doesn’t improve with age, but it’s filtered, so it can be poured right from the bottle.
One style of port you might see on the shelves is reserve port. Reserve is a premium version of ruby port, but it’s still ruby port. Graham’s Six Grapes Reserve is an excellent example of the amazing things one can achieve with ruby port, and is a great place to start.
Tawny port is a barrel aged port named for its golden-brown color. Tawny port is more complex with additional flavors imparted by the wood. All tawny port is aged at least three years, but you can buy varieties that have aged longer. Typically if you see an age statement on a bottle of tawny, it’s 10, 20, 30, or 40 years. That’s it. The Portuguese like to keep it simple, but, if you buy a bottle of 20 year tawny port, it doesn’t mean what’s in the bottle was in the barrel for 20 years, it only means some of the port in the blend was 20 years in a barrel. Yes, you could go all technical, but the age statements keep it simple, reflect reality in the world of blended wine, and offer a good indication of what to expect. A 20 year tawny will taste like a 20 year tawny, etc.
Colheita port is a single vintage tawny port aged for at least 7 years in wood. Unlike tawny port, colheita carries a vintage year instead of an age statement, but it’s not a blend and can offer unique qualities even across the same brand. Even though colheita has a year on the label, it is still a tawny port, not a vintage port.
Vintage port is the gold standard of port and may be aged in wood or stainless steel for a maximum of 30 months before bottling, then aged in the bottle for anywhere from 10 to 40 years or more. Those old dusty bottles of port that you hear about from hundreds of years ago that people like Thomas Jefferson had in a cellar and were old at the time? Yep. Vintage port.
Unlike wine, vintage port is labeled only when the vintage year is exceptional. So you might not get a vintage port every year because a vintage isn’t declared every year. Vintage years are rare, and all up to nature, and the Portuguese. The remarkable thing about vintage port is the freshness. Years and years in the bottle develops a rich complexity with subtle flavors everywhere, but it’s still fresh. None of the fruit notes are lost, and the color remains dark ruby. Vintage port only gets better with age, so it’s not uncommon to find those old bottles in the hands of collectors who will, one day, open and taste them.
Have you ever seen those decanters that are really wide on the bottom with a long skinny neck? Those are called ship’s decanters because they were designed for use on a sailing ship. The captain would want his port, but he wouldn’t want it to spill. Those decanters are for vintage port, which isn’t filtered and will have both sediment, and pieces of cork in it after you try, and fail, to remove it. A disintegrating cork in a vintage bottle of port is expected, and no big deal, but, for a Coffee Cocktail, we’re not going near vintage port.
Ruby or tawny are fine for us, but, let’s get back to the point. Why are we making this cocktail anyway. Well, port, like any other fortified wine, is still wine. It will fade slowly once the bottle is open. That means we have, as far as ruby and tawny ports go, about 2 months to finish it before it’s undrinkable, but, after just a week or 2, you can taste it neat and notice some of the crisp details have softened, and some of the subtleties have diminished. It’s still good, just not as good. So why not use it in a cocktail?
Port is the star of this cocktail, and if its port that’s started to fade, that’s OK. The brandy will perk it up. Note, too, that a freshly opened bottle of port will indeed improve a Coffee Cocktail, but what you mix in the drink could also be savored neat. We’ll leave that to you, but, for us, we like a luscious tawny port for our Coffee Cocktail. Our go to is Warre’s Otima 10 Year Old Tawny Port, a spectacular product at a jug wine price. Port in general is not expensive, and when you find an affordably price bottle as wonderful as Otima 10, you tend to keep it around. Think of Otima 10, and port overall, as fruit. If wine is grapes, then port is raisins, and Otima 10 is deeply lush and sweet and each sip is like a handfull of raisins, with chocolate and berries and vanilla, and, well, you get the idea. This bottle is a favorite for a reason, and, even if we still have some a month after opening, we still like it neat, but also feel like it can go into a Coffee Cocktail without losing anything.
Our brandy is Vivacity Treos Brandy, a brandy produced like those from Europe, but from Oregon pinot noir. What could be better than that? We may have to look toward Portugal for port, but we only need to look in the Willamette Valley for brandy. Now, how much do we use? This cocktail is a flip, that means it uses a whole egg, yolk and all. We’ve made egg white cocktails before, and discussed the size of eggs. The same rules apply here. In the time of Jerry Thomas they would have used small eggs, thus Thomas’ Coffee Cocktail uses only an ounce each of port and brandy. Today it’s rare to find small or medium eggs. Most supermarkets only carry large or extra large eggs. You then have 2 choices. Beat up the egg so you can portion it out, and use half of it, or just use more booze. We chose the latter. Our recipe assumes a large egg, so, adjust accordingly if you have small eggs, or want a smaller drink.
In any case, however you assemble a Coffee Cocktail, it tastes nothing like coffee. Yes, it’s thick as a milkshake, and just as creamy, but it tastes of raisins and grape and oak and, mostly, port. This is a raisin cocktail, an old school cocktail that should make you feel absolutely luxurious as if wrapped in smoking jacket and shawl, relaxing in an easy chair next to the drinks globe while regaling guests with tales of adventures on mountain slopes, of malaria contracted in jungles, and of fortunes made in the spice trade. I mean, you can’t garnish a Coffee Cocktail without nutmeg, and it had to come from somewhere.
To a cocktail shaker, add all ingredients and dry shake. Shake again with ice, serve up, and garnish with some freshly ground nutmeg.
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