Coffee cocktails can be a downer. For every well-made carajillo or Espresso Martini, there are dozens of variations that fail to nail that narrow sweet spot where the mixture becomes more than just a spiked cup of joe. While the Irish Coffee is by far the most prominent entry in the category, there are kindred cocktails of American provenance that predate that import by several decades, like The Coffee House. Listed in 1930’s The Saloon in the Home or a Garland of Rumblossoms, the rye-based drink has become a left-field favorite of bar owner Richie Boccato.
Before opening Dutch Kills and Fresh Kills in New York and Bar Clacson and the Slipper Clutch in Los Angeles, Boccato worked for the late Sasha Petraske at Manhattan’s Milk & Honey and Little Branch. It was there, around 2007, that he was introduced to the Coffee House by coworker Michael Madrusan, now the proprietor of The Everleigh in Sydney. Madrusan would regularly email historic recipes to the staff, which “helped to broaden all our cocktail vocabularies,” says Boccato.
When Boccato opened Fresh Kills in 2016, he dedicated its menu to exploring under-appreciated cocktails outside “the same-old, lame-old obligatory canon of classics.” He placed a sleeker, leaner rendition of The Coffee House on the bar’s opening list, modified from the original equal parts rye and black coffee recipe that appears in the pages of Saloon in the Home.
Co-written by architect and humorist George S. Chappell and Ridgely Hunt, a World War I veteran turned Yale librarian, the little-known book presents itself as an even-keeled aggregate of temperance opinions. By juxtaposing cocktail recipes with excerpts from fear-mongering anti-alcohol publications of the day, the authors execute a tongue-in-cheek rebuke of the movement. For instance, a story of a young woman whose life was ruined by cordials accompanies the spec for the whiskey-driven Cameron’s Kick, while a disturbing anecdote of a drunken father carelessly drowning his infant son appears alongside the recipe for a Horse’s Neck. It’s a subtle mockery of militant teetotalism from cover to cover done in a manner Boccato describes as “overt hoodwinkery at its finest.”
The Coffee House, as presented in Saloon, comprises equal parts rye whiskey and black coffee, punctuated by two dashes each of sugar syrup and orange bitters. Boccato figured that it was initially intended to be “served hot, or at the very least lukewarm.” (Instructions do not accompany the original recipe.) But its resemblance to the bourbon-and-coffee Revolver, a modern signature of San Francisco bartender Jon Santer, inspired Boccato to try it cold.
Consolidating the coffee and sugar into a single ingredient was a logical first step. For this, Boccato is fond of the baking spices present in the bold, espresso-based Varnelli Caffè Moka liqueur, though he does cop to some cultural bias: “It comes from Italy, and so do I,” he says. Proportionally, though, “one-to-one was not happening,” he says, leading to an unconventional but well-tuned ratio of one and three-quarter ounces of whiskey to just half an ounce of coffee liqueur. The resulting drink reads like a kicked-up Old-Fashioned; it’s stiff but alluring, offering nuance beyond the Vodka Red Bull effect of many coffee cocktails. It is, in Boccato’s words, “a hidden gem in plain daylight.”