Kenneth Vanhooser is no stranger to layering liqueurs. In Nashville, where he got his start in the mid-aughts, layered shots are still an important part of the bargoer’s diet. Vanhooser has made thousands of ’90s-style “classics” for the Vanderbilt crowd, from B-52s and Rattlesnakes to Buttery Nipples and Bear Hugs. After an education in pre-Prohibition classics at the NoMad and elsewhere, Vanhooser is handily equipped to revive the original layered shot: the Pousse Café.
The Pousse Café didn’t begin as a layered affair. Instead, it was simply a general term—literally “push coffee” in French—for a mixture of various liqueurs, to be served after dinner with, or, more often, following, the coffee course. By the 1860s, some examples of the form reflected a carefully striped aesthetic. In The Oxford Companion to Spirits & Cocktails, Robert Moss suggests this rainbow-like presentation may have come about with the influx of German immigrants, who imported their own liqueur-layering traditions.
Jerry Thomas’ 1862 bartender’s guide offers five recipes for drinks that fall under the Pousse Café umbrella. One of the drinks depicted, the Pousse l’Amour, features maraschino liqueur, vanilla cordial and an egg yolk with brandy dashed on top, illustrated with four distinct layers. Though one drink is explicitly stirred before serving, the rest were likely also layered.
Given that Thomas’ book was so foundational to the concept of bar manuals, most subsequent authors parroted his inclusion of the Pousse Café until Prohibition. Newer recipes for the drink called for all manner of liqueurs, spirits and cordials, with mention of anisette, green and yellow Chartreuse, kirschwasser, Bénédictine, Cognac, raspberry syrup, kümmel, Curaçao and more. Layering became a requirement, and these kaleidoscopic compositions likely owed their popularity to their elaborate presentation.
Some Pousse Café recipes called for egg, as with the Pousse l’Amour, while others called for dairy. Those made with cream became associated with the “angel” subgenre, which included such examples as the Angel’s Kiss and Angel’s Tit. That particular cream-laced style of Pousse Café presaged the layered shots of dive bars and bachelorette parties, right down to the titillating naming convention. From the bawdy names to the inclusion of opaque, dairy-adjacent ingredients like Baileys, there’s something that screams 1990s about the Pousse Café. Vanhooser’s version is no exception.
A modern Pousse Café made with layers of colorful liqueurs, creamy Calpico and aquavit.
At Le Loup in Nashville, where Vanhooser is beverage manager, his cocktail brings together elements from across the drink’s history. The build begins with a base of Calpico (or “Calpis”), an uncarbonated, fermented dairy drink popular in Japan. He likens its flavor to that of White Mystery Airheads—another, perhaps unintentional, nod to the ’90s. Its milky appearance provides immediate contrast with the translucent layers that follow.
On top of the Calpico, Vanhooser adds a layer of green Chartreuse, chosen not only for its signature color and flavor, but for its density. “The thickness of green Chartreuse acts as a filter,” he says, “so when you’re pouring, depending on the weight of each liqueur, it will sit on top of the Chartreuse or just drop underneath it.”
Vanhooser follows the green Chartreuse with blue Curaçao and bitter, vibrant red Campari, which both slip underneath the Chartreuse. Next is Licor 43, which lends an amber color to the drink’s rainbow, as well as notes of vanilla, spices and orange. Because of its density, the Spanish liqueur sits atop the green Chartreuse.
For the top layer, Vanhooser wanted something that mirrored the unexpectedness of his chosen bottom layer. He settled on aquavit that’s been shaken with ice and a piece of lemon peel. “It’s an exclamation point on the bottom and the top,” he explains. But it’s not just the element of surprise that caused him to choose this final layer. Full-proof spirits (from Cognac to kirsch) as well as savory liqueurs (most notably kümmel) have long had a role in the Pousse Café, and Vanhooser has long been a devotee of the Scandinavian spirit and its nutty, spicy flavor. Chilling and aerating the spirit—as well as brightening its profile with a regal shake—makes for a layer that sits nicely atop the composition.
The bar’s version is carefully built by first measuring each of the elements into mini copper Yarai jiggers, then using a spoon that’s been bent to a 90-degree angle to aid in layering the drink. For glassware, Vanhooser uses a vintage Mikasa glass, with a textured pink stem reminiscent of a mermaid’s tail, that he found at a swap meet. Finally, before the drink is served, oils from a second lemon peel add a last brightening flourish.
People seated at the bar watch with rapt attention as Vanhooser and his bartenders carefully layer the drink. Those brave enough to order the unusual cocktail tend to be pleased with their choice. Though patrons don’t know exactly what to expect from the little-known drink, there’s something familiar about it. Maybe it reminds them of those layered ’90s shots. Maybe it’s just stuck in some far corner of the American psyche, with its vibrant rainbow presentation. Either way, says Vanhooser, the Pousse Café toes the line between tacky and alluring. “It’s cheesy-sexy. It’s a novelty,” he says. “We’ve never had one sent back.”