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The Flaming Dr Pepper, Explained

How could the combination of beer, amaretto and overproof rum, set ablaze, not have a story to tell?

It’s not hard to believe that some cocktails—say, the Daiquiri, a simple mixture of rum, lime juice and sugar—could have been invented in two places simultaneously. But even with an infinite number of bartenders grabbing infinite bottles, it seems all but impossible that two would land on a combination of amaretto and grain alcohol, lit on fire, then plopped into a half-full pint glass of lager. Yet, around the same time, at two very different locations, two bartenders claim to have created the “bomb” shot known as the Flaming Dr Pepper.

Formulated in 1885 by a pharmacist in Waco, Texas, and consisting of 23 flavors like cherry, amaretto and sarsaparilla, Dr Pepper has deep roots throughout the Lone Star State; it’s even been called “Texas’ Favorite Soft Drink.” About 90 miles southeast of the soda’s birthplace is College Station, home of Texas A&M University. In the adjoining town of Bryan, right on College Avenue, sits the Ptarmigan Club, a former brothel-turned-dive bar opened by Luke Cemino in 1976.

“As far as I know, he was the one who invented the Flaming Dr Pepper,” says his son, Tony Cemino, though he can’t pinpoint a specific year. Luke Cemino died in 2000, and the Ptarmigan Club has changed ownership several times over the years. Nevertheless, Flaming Dr Peppers are still served en masse at the bar, often lined up with shot glasses resting precariously on the rims of the pint glasses, ready to be ignited and plopped into the frosty mugs in rapid succession. In fact, a sign on the Ptarmigan Club’s white metal awning claims to be the “Home of the Flaming Dr Pepper.” (Though the iconic soda is entirely absent from its namesake shot, the oddball combination of flavors nevertheless bears a passing resemblance to it, and by one account, was the direct inspiration for the shot’s creation.)

Equal parts Rube Goldbergian and dangerous, the drink was aptly designed for a college audience, and it didn’t take long for the Flaming Dr Pepper to spread throughout the state’s many collegiate bars. By 1986 the shot had made it to Lubbock, home of Texas Tech University, where a college dive called Bash Riprock’s was one of the first to serve them. They would soon head to Austin, home of the University of Texas, and a popular destination for young A&M grads, who brought their love for Flaming Dr Peppers with them.

As the home of the original Dr Pepper, the Lone Star State has a solid claim as the birthplace of the Flaming Dr Pepper, and Texas A&M fans are quick to defend it. And, yet, 450 miles to the east, there’s a bar just off Bourbon Street in New Orleans that also stakes a claim to the Flaming Dr Pepper.

Back in 1986, the Gold Mine Saloon was in deep financial trouble after owner Barbara Bear’s divorce. The laid-back neighborhood bar, with pool tables and old-school arcade machines, frequented by street magicians, bikers, hustlers and offbeat locals with names like Fungus, Long-Haired Mike and Peanut Butter Ron, mostly served beer. Her son, then-19-year-old Dave Brinks, was running the Gold Mine that summer, desperately trying to turn the business around. At the time, “shot bars” like Sitting Duck in Uptown were becoming popular. Brinks figured that if he was going to pull the Gold Mine out of debt, he needed to pivot to a similar model and start offering a dedicated shot menu.

“I sat down one Saturday and started working on a shot list,” he explains. “The Jet Fuel, the B-52, tons of different shots I came up with. The last thing was, I really needed to make up one that tasted like my favorite soft drink.”

I thought: No one is going to drink this shot. It’s incomprehensible. No one would possibly like it.

He started messing around with a variety of liqueurs, quickly realizing that a locally made amaretto (which he declines to name as it’s his “secret sauce”) presented a lot of Dr Pepper flavor notes. When he mixed it with Miller Lite, it was even closer in flavor profile. The amaretto brings the cherry notes, the lager adds a malty body and some fizz.

“Then, I put a little drop of Everclear in the shot glass, lit it on fire, and dropped it in—it tasted perfectly like the 23 flavors,” he recalls. Brinks was pleased with his creation, but didn’t expect anyone else to care. “I thought: No one is going to drink this shot. It’s incomprehensible. No one would possibly like it.”

While Texas has an affinity for Dr Pepper, New Orleans has its own penchant for lighting comestibles on fire—Café Brûlot, Bananas Foster—and, according to Brinks, it immediately became a sensation, enough to render the Gold Mine financially solvent. And just as it had spread in Texas, it rapidly made the rounds in Louisiana, landing on the menu at places like Purple Peacock in Eunice, Burmaster’s Basement in Arabi and Heavy’s in Shreveport.

Despite being at the center of its mythology, Brinks is surprisingly humble about the whole thing, well aware of Texas’ claim to the Flaming Dr Pepper throne. “I may or may not have invented the Flaming Dr Pepper,” he says. “But I definitely didn’t know anything about [the Ptarmigan Club] and I was working independently on it. Whatever they were doing was not what I was doing.”

Could it be that a Texas A&M student was partying in New Orleans in the summer of 1986, had a Flaming Dr Pepper at the Gold Mine, then brought the recipe back to their local Ptarmigan Club where it was co-opted by Cemino? It’s certainly within the realm of plausibility, especially considering that the first home football game at Louisiana State University in September 1986 was played against Texas A&M.

Whether it was invented in Bryan, Texas, or New Orleans, by the late 1980s, the Flaming Dr Pepper was spreading rapidly, mostly in the South and Southwest. By 1990 it was in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, at Ham’s Restaurant, and, according to one bartender they actually invented the drink, which was now served with the addition of Kahlúa. (Incidentally, this is where the drink first appears in print, in The Daily Tarheel, University of North Carolina’s student newspaper.) By the late 1990s, it had reached Oklahoma City, where one bartender’s failed attempt at nailing the Flaming Dr Pepper led to the creation of another offbeat drinking sensation, Edna’s Lunchbox.

By 2005, the Chicago Tribune was writing about the Flaming Dr Pepper. “Who even orders this thing? Hint: Anyone with a Greek letter sweatshirt,” read one writeup. It would eventually spread to Europe and Australia by the early-aughts.

Incidents have caused the Flaming Dr Pepper to be banned in some states, including North Carolina. 

Back in the French Quarter, in 1991, Harry Shearer, a longtime New Orleans resident and voice actor on The Simpsons, had discovered the drink. According to Brinks, Shearer convinced the show’s writers to incorporate the Flaming Dr Pepper into an episode in which Homer invents a drink that his local bartender Moe Szyslak subsequently steals. (In the episode, the drink is known as the Flaming Moe.) In a precocious bit of writing that seemed to predict the battle over the Flaming Dr Pepper, bumbling attorney Lionel Hutz explains to Homer: “I’m sorry, but you can’t copyright a drink. This all goes back to the Frank Wallbanger case of ’78.”

However, the drink is not beyond the reaches of the law, as incidents have caused the Flaming Dr Pepper to be banned in some states, including North Carolina. Flaming Dr Pepper accidents have also been reported in the American Journal of Emergency Medicine, which wrote about a 1997 case in which a 14-year-old Virginia boy burned his face and neck while downing the flaming shot. Still, the Flaming Dr Pepper remains a quintessential shot for reckless hijinks and record-breaking attempts, like a group who slammed 143 in an hour in 2012.

It’s still the signature drink at the Gold Mine Saloon, and even Lady Gaga enjoyed one there as recently as 2015. Today, Brinks still owns the bar, but he’s also a father of three, a successful poet, author of a half-dozen books, and inventor of the “sonnegram,” a 13-line form. Yet, he still is more famous for his teenage innovation.

“Kinda funny really,” he notes. “I get more requests to sign napkin autographs as the inventor of the Flaming Dr Pepper shot than I do as an author of my hard-earned poetry books.”

If any city can claim to be the epicenter of the Flaming Dr Pepper these days, it would be Austin, where they flame throughout Dirty Sixth Street. At Cheers Shot Bar, whenever a round of Flaming Dr Pepper is ordered, the bartender takes a swig of Bacardi 151, ignites a lighter, and then spits a fireball over the top of all the shot glasses. Touché, meanwhile, has installed a fireproof bar top after previous incidents.

But the Flaming Dr Pepper has fans in the upper echelons of the craft cocktail world as well. “Working in this corner of the industry one tends to spend a fair amount of time taking cocktails really seriously, enough that the earnestness can start to feel a little uncool,” explains Matthew Belanger, head bartender at Death & Co.’s Los Angeles outpost. “Displaying an ironic appreciation for something ‘trashy’ like the Flaming Dr Pepper helps to signal to other people that we don’t take ourselves too seriously.” The Flaming Dr Pepper stands out from the host of other ironic shots in that it creates the gestalt flavor of the soft drink, notes Belanger.

Brian Floyd, a cocktail bar consultant who now lives in Austin, takes a similar stance. “Sometimes you want something slightly ridiculous, and a Flaming Dr Pepper is that,” he says.

Floyd remembers his first Flaming Dr Pepper, at a Millsaps College frat house circa 1996, and his most recent one on his 44th birthday, just last month while under quarantine, which he dressed up by using Plantation O.F.T.D rum for ignition. “It’s likely the first I’ve had in decades,” he explains. “And every time you have one, you go: ‘Damn, that really does taste like Dr Pepper.’”

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