New Orleans is, without a doubt, a breeding ground for the dramatic. It’s a city that will readily embrace your reptile-themed burlesque show, doesn’t bat an eye at a parade that celebrates with over-sized floats shaped like genitalia and encourages residents to have a designated “costume closet” just in case the need to play dress-up arises on, say, a random Wednesday.
In a place with such an oversized personality, it’s no wonder that, when it comes to after-dinner drinks, only the most elaborate, flame-thrown presentation will do. Enter the Café Brûlot, a spice-doused coffee cocktail built on a brandy base that’s served by the city’s grand dame restaurants and is replete with the kind of built-in pyrotechnics that could rival any Las Vegas revue.
Offered almost exclusively at high-end, old-line dining establishments of the French Quarter—Arnaud’s, Galatoire’s and Antoine’s, to name a few—Café Brûlot (which quite literally means “incendiary coffee”) isn’t a drink built for the bar, but the dining room, where all the tools of its creation are wheeled out to be prepared tableside—a lavish ending to what was, assuredly, an indulgent meal.
“One of the great things about Café Brûlot is that, similar to a gumbo, every restaurant has their own recipe and their own show,” says Katy Casbarian, proprietor of Arnaud’s, a beloved French Quarter staple since 1918. “Some places ignite the brandy and then throw it on the tablecloth; some ignite the bowl and ladle the mixture up and down [on fire] then extinguish it with coffee. There are a lot of different ways to do it.”
No matter the restaurant, the boozy choreography begins by warming aromatics—cinnamon, clove, lemon peel—in a Brûlot bowl (an ornamental silver-plated vessel) over an open flame. In the Arnaud’s presentation, brandy and orange liqueur are then combined in a ladle, lit on fire and poured down a clove-studded, spiraled orange peel like a fiery waterslide into the bowl below. After the flamed liquor spins a few times down the peel, it’s doused with chicory coffee and swirled together in the bowl with the toasted spices and sugar to taste, then served to the table in petite demitasse cups.
“Pouring the lit brandy down the orange peel allows for the cloves to start crackling and their true essence to come out, as well as all the essential oils from the orange to mingle,” Casbarian explains. “But the showmanship is just as much a part of the Café Brûlot as the taste. It’s the most delicious-smelling aroma. If you have it at one table, another table will order it right after.”
Café Brûlot Service at Arnaud's
Arnaud’s has been serving Café Brûlot the same way since 1978, but the drink has been on the menu since the 1940s. It’s said to have been originally invented at Antoine’s in the late 1880s, but true lore traces the cocktail all the way back to the pirate Jean Lafitte at the turn of the 19th century, who would perform the drink-making ritual for an entranced audience while his comrades pickpocketed the group.
But more than thieving pirates or flaming fruit, it’s the oft-overlooked Brûlot bowl itself that’s the hero of the show (members of the waitstaff willing to risk singed eyebrows notwithstanding). A shallow sterling silver or copper piece of hyper-specific serving-ware, the Brûlot bowl is fussy-looking enough that it could’ve been a cartoon character from Beauty and the Beast, but has instead found its calling as the only proper vessel for co-mingling the Brûlot’s flaming liquors and spices.
“Special Brûlot equipment is required if you are to burn Café Brûlot successfully,” writes Stanley Clisby Arthur in the classic 1937 cocktail guidebook, Famous New Orleans Cocktails and How to Mix ‘Em. “Don’t use your wife’s silver fruit bowl, although it may resemble a Brûlot bowl in shape and appearance. We know a man who did this…and rich old Aunt Hattie’s wedding gift phiffted into the shape of Aunt Hattie in fewer minutes than it takes to tell.”
The scarcity of true Brûlot bowls in the wild and its importance for ensuring the drink’s properly-flared presentation might be what keeps more bars and brave home enthusiasts from attempting the drink outside of its natural, French-Creole habitat. While San Francisco’s Tosca had an Arnaud’s-inspired version on the menu back in 2014, it rarely appears outside its hometown. Though eBay scouring comes up short, those hellbent on making the drink in their own kitchens can purchase an ultra-luxe, Dale DeGroff-approved Brûlot bowl via Cocktail Kingdom (sticker price: $699.95).
I’d like to think, though, that the Café Brûlot loses something when removed from its native New Orleans; it’s a cocktail that embodies the spirit of a place so much it is only able to thrive in the old-line restaurants where it’s been wooing diners for well over a century: a showstopping drink burned into sensory memory.