“This is dangerous shit—it’s basically a firebomb,” says Dale DeGroff of the Café Brûlot, New Orleans’ most incendiary cocktail. The fragrant, fiery tableside preparation of brandy, clove-studded citrus peel and coffee has been a fixture of the city’s most venerable restaurants for over a century. And as the messiah of the modern cocktail movement, few have devoted as much time to mastering the technique as DeGroff.
The ostentatious display dates back to the 19th century, when French pirate Jean Lafitte purportedly made the flaming drink as a form of New Orleans street theater while his cohorts picked the pockets of a rapt audience. In the late 1880s, Jules Alciatore, the son of Antoine’s namesake founder, added it to the menu of their French Quarter restaurant. Today, Antoine’s, Arnaud’s, Galatoire’s, Commander’s Palace and a select few other New Orleans stalwarts remain the keepers of Café Brûlot, carrying on the tableside tradition albeit with variations in build and execution; some fling brandy on the tablecloth for a brief blazing effect, while others use lemon in place of orange or toss in unconventional liqueurs.
“It’s a fine-dining thing,” explains DeGroff, who served as head bartender of New York’s Rainbow Room from 1987 to 1999. “In the last 30 years, we had a culinary revolution followed by a cocktail revolution and now restaurateurs are looking for ways to celebrate the classics— Café Brûlot is an opportunity to bring theatricality to the dining room.”
DeGroff first encountered Café Brûlot at Galatoire’s in the 1990s (“It’s still my favorite place to have it, along with Commander’s Palace”) and was soon making it at the Rainbow Room for special occasions. “I was all about flaming stuff; I set my shoes on fire with Brûlot and Blue Blazers more than once while learning,” he recalls.
For a successful Café Brûlot, the right equipment is critical. Historically, this meant an ornate, French-made, silver-plated copper punch bowl attached to a brass base with a saucer underneath for holding the fuel, a ladle and a long-handled fork. Production of Café Brûlot bowls waned in the 1980s due to lack of demand. But when DeGroff introduced the drink in 1996, he was in possession of two sets—more than some restaurants that specialized in the practice had—salvaged from Midtown’s Bridge Kitchenware’s former warehouse. “Even the famous old New Orleans restaurants had partial or MacGyvered versions,” explains DeGroff.
He began teaching how to make Café Brûlot as part of the BAR 5-Day Certification Program that he co-founded 14 years ago. Recognizing the lack of specialized equipment available to consumers, DeGroff collaborated with bar supplier Cocktail Kingdom to create his eponymous Café Brûlot line in 2018, producing a training video to go along with the kit.
According to DeGroff, the first step in making Café Brûlot at home is preparing the base; this can be done several hours or even a day before serving it. While modern versions often include orange liqueur, DeGroff prefers the more traditional kirschwasser eau-de-vie. “I like the flavor of Alsatian fruit brandies—they’re unmatched,” he says, “and Clear Creek Distillery has mastered that.” He adds anywhere from one-third to one-half bottle of the spirit depending upon the desired flavor, one bottle of Courvoisier VS Cognac, 12 whole cloves studded into the continuous peel of an orange and six broken Ceylon cinnamon sticks to a nonreactive container with a top; this will yield several batches. The mix is transferred to the Brûlot bowl just before service.
When it comes time to make the drink, DeGroff prepares one liter of coffee (he recommends using equal parts Café Du Monde French Roast Coffee and their Coffee with Chicory), and adds it to a pitcher. He then makes a second orange spiral studded with eight cloves; DeGroff says the citrus should be as fresh as possible, “because the heat will burst the oil-filled cells in the peel, making it sparkle as the flaming Brûlot mix is ladled onto it.” From there, he threads one end of the spiral through the tines of the Brûlot fork and rests it on a plate while he prepares the rest of the drink.
DeGroff pours an overproof neutral spirit into the saucer beneath the bowl, and ignites it using a long fireplace match. “You need to know what you’re doing—use no more than one ounce per batch. When you light it, the flame can hit the ceiling, so be sure to practice your technique in a safe place, keep high-proof spirits away from the Brûlot bowl and make sure the sprinkler system is off,” he warns.
When the mix is warm, he scoops a scant ladleful from the bowl and exposes it to the open flame until it ignites. With his other hand, he reaches for the fork and centers the orange spiral above the bowl, with the bottom of the peel submerged. DeGroff then meticulously streams the flaming Brûlot mix over the peel, repeating the process several times to ensure the orange oils and cloves impart their flavor. After setting the fork and peel aside, he slowly pours the coffee into the bowl until the fire is extinguished (it will cause a brief initial flare until the alcohol burns off), then adds demerara syrup, which imparts a richer flavor than traditional simple syrup, to taste. “Tasting is part of the ritual,” says DeGroff. “The show presentation always includes the head waiter, captain or bartender—whoever is preparing the drink—using his or her own tasting cup to make sure the sugar content is correct. This is a dessert, so it needs to be sweet, but balanced.”
Despite its formal presentation, DeGroff firmly believes Café Brûlot has a place in the modern restaurant or bar. “What I love about the industry today is, we’re no longer imprisoned by tradition, so all the rules are moot,” he says, noting that one of his favorite preparations of the drink calls on pisco in place of Cognac for a more fruit-forward version.
“The sky’s the limit with this recipe,” he says. “Maybe we’ll even see Mezcal Brûlot in the future.”