Take 50-odd laps around the sun, and the forces of time will catch up to you. Players become has-beens. Sharpness dulls. The culture just up and moves on.
At a glance, the midcentury Keoke Coffee presents as that sort of tired, lost middle-ager, a bit mistreated by the years, out of step. If you’re saying to yourself, What’s Keoke Coffee?, that kind of proves the point.
A mix of Kahlúa, coffee, crème de cacao, brandy and heavy cream, the Keoke (keh-oh-kee) Coffee was invented in Southern California in the late 1960s and caught on as a nightcap, dessert drink and après-ski beverage. But its popularity faded. In order for the West Coast original to stage a comeback, the boozy cocktail first needed a little toning and sculpting.
The drink got just that when Portland, Oregon, bartender Jeffrey Morgenthaler recently gave it a second look, trimming back its build, punching up the ingredients and re-dressing it all in slinkier glassware. “We had an Irish Coffee on our menu,” he says. “But the Keoke Coffee... It’s from the West Coast. It just seemed more appropriate.”
In placing the Keoke Coffee within the timeline of cocktails from history, Morgenthaler lands on the following: “It’s not not a classic. It’s just never been a particularly respected classic.” In the 1990s—his early years as a bartender—he fielded lots of orders for the Keoke Coffee. Over time, “I’d kind of forgotten about it,” he says. “It’s one of those many coffee drinks that are all sort of the same. No one really knows the recipe. You kind of just throw some liqueurs in a glass, add coffee and top it off with whipped cream.”
A former bartender and regular at Morgenthaler’s bar Pacific Standard got him thinking about the drink again. On one of his daily visits, the guest brought up the Keoke Coffee. Did Morgenthaler know how to make it?, the guest asked, sending him into research mode.
The original Keoke Coffee, Morgenthaler learned, came from George Bullington, owner of now-closed San Diego steakhouse Bully’s, who is said to have invented the drink in 1967 while experimenting behind the bar. As the story goes, a Hawaiian staffer suggested the drink’s name to honor Bullington (“George” can be translated to “Keoki” in Hawaiian; you sometimes see the drink spelled with an “i”) and it stuck.
“The Keoke Coffee usually is served super hot, because it’s usually served in a massive glass [with] tons of liquor, tons of coffee. And usually coffee that’s been sitting on a hot plate,” Morgenthaler notes. For Pacific Standard’s adaptation, he looked to the Irish Coffee as a model.
“I put it in an Irish Coffee cup, cut down the proportion and took the Kahlúa out completely,” he says, finding the liqueur unnecessary. “Like the Amaretto Sour, the original recipe is not very good, so I feel like you have more freedom to do whatever you want.” With the sweet Kahlúa out, in went some brown sugar syrup to retain a dessert-like dimension. Morgenthaler’s rendition is then topped with whipped cream and dusted with cinnamon “to hint at those rum and spice flavors.”
Still, Morgenthaler felt the drink needed more backbone, which came in the form of Sacred Bond, a 100-proof bottled-in-bond American brandy from Kentucky’s Heaven Hill Distillery.
To DIY the whipped cream topper, Pacific Standard uses a trick from The Bar Book, Morgenthaler’s 2014 guide to cocktail technique: Heavy cream is poured into a Mason jar, with room left for the liquid to froth up, then the jar is sealed and shaken lightly to yield a fluffy, spoonable whipped cream.
The hot coffee base used in Pacific Standard’s Keoke Coffee is the bar’s premium house brew, supplied by local Portland roaster Good Coffee because, of course, some standard-issue joe wouldn’t cut it. “Portland is such a coffee town,” notes Morgenthaler, “always has been.” He’d painstakingly selected the blend after sampling Good Coffee’s entire lineup.
Amid the Espresso Martini’s reign, Pacific Standard is making the case for another caffeinated darling to shine, too. “Having [the Keoke Coffee] right next to the Espresso Martini on the menu, I think it does lead people in,” says Morgenthaler. And once the new-and-improved Keoke Coffee arrived, “it’s been selling like hotcakes ever since.”