On paper, I shouldn’t like the Spanish Coffee at Huber’s. The legendary drink served at Portland, Oregon’s oldest restaurant—established in 1879—combines multiple elements I tend to avoid in cocktails: heat, whipped cream and a show. And yet, when I downed one on a rainy Sunday evening, it hit the spot in a way no other cocktail has come close to in recent memory.
I have been burned by hot cocktails enough times that I usually steer clear of them. I often find Hot Toddies and their ilk to be overly diluted, cloying or difficult to consume in the narrow window of time they are at the optimal temperature to drink. But Huber’s is disarming. The historic restaurant’s sweeping mahogany bar, vest- and tie-clad bartenders, arched stained glass skylights and unpretentious old-school vibe are so charming that it seems wrong to not order the flagship cocktail.
For many, Huber’s Spanish Coffee needs no introduction. The 145-year-old restaurant didn’t invent the drink, but James Louie, a current co-owner, certainly put it on the map in the U.S. In the 1970s, to attract more customers to the bar, Louie added the drink—a cousin of the carajillo—to the menu and turned it into a show. The hard-hitting cocktail developed a fervent fan base in Portland before spreading around the country.
Prepared tableside, the cocktail begins with a flourish of triple sec and overproof rum set ablaze in a sugar-rimmed glass, only to be extinguished with a dramatic free pour of Kahlúa, a couple of ounces of locally roasted coffee and a blanket of barely sweetened whipped cream dusted with nutmeg. Generally, I feel awkward watching food or drinks being prepared tableside—I can’t help but imagine the server would rather work in private, but Huber’s bartenders are so deft; it would truly be a shame to have the drink built out of sight. Plus, the fire show serves a purpose: The blue flame burns long enough to thoroughly heat the glass, ensuring that the drink is served hot and stays that way.
The cocktail also manages to avoid one of the pitfalls that many whipped cream–topped drinks succumb to. Rather than clumping unattractively or melting away entirely, the pillowy cream stays intact, acting as the ideal buffer between the caramelized sugar rim and the bitter, boozy beverage hidden below. Served in a tempered tavern glass, the drink is the perfect size: small enough to consume before it cools, but with enough bite to make it feel substantial. It’s so pleasurable to drink that it’s made me reconsider my stance on hot cocktails, tableside service and whipped cream altogether. For the ambitious home bartender, the ritual can be replicated with a long match and a careful touch. But for everyone else, this drink is a must when visiting Portland.