The Champagne of Maine: Allen’s Invades the Cocktail Bar

Allen's Coffee Flavored Brandy is nothing short of a cultural phenomenon in Maine, where it's long been the top-selling spirit in the state. Leah Mennies on the The Champagne of Maine (aka Bitch Whiskey) and how it's finding new life in cocktail bars.

allen's coffee brandy

Until it was shuttered in early February, Sangillo’s was a beloved watering hole in Portland, Maine for six decades. It was cash-only and draft-line free, with Schlitz-branded stained glass lamps and Woodbridge White Zinfandel poured from magnum-sized bottles. There were signature $2 Jell-O shots, $3 shots of Dr. Migillicuddy’s on Mondays and triple-sized $6 shots of Jim Beam.

Sangillo’s was both prized by its decades-long regulars, who often walked in when the bar opened at 8 a.m., and fetishized by the younger drinkers and industry types who love a good dive bar. It was also the natural habitat of the most singular of Maine cocktails: the Sombrero. Though that may be the drink’s official name, The Sombrero goes by many aliases: Fatass in a Glass, the Biddeford Martini, the Downeast Panty Remover.

It is, simply, a hyper-regional highball of milk and Allen’s Coffee Flavored Brandy over ice. Sometimes, it’s just called Allen’s and Milk. And if the milk part of the equation comes from Oakhurst Dairy, it’s called an A-Ok. The anchoring ingredient, Allen’s Coffee Flavored Brandy, is a neutral citrus-based brandy amped up with sugar and coffee extract—a 60-proof spirit with a syrupy Dunkin’ Donuts coffee sweetness up front, and a distinctive metallic finish.

To call the stuff a cultural phenomenon in Maine is an understatement. Statistically, one in eight bottles of alcohol purchased in Maine is Allen’s. The top-selling spirit in the state is the Allen’s 1.75-liter bottle, and its sales dwarf those of the number-two contender, Orloff Vodka. Overall, the coffee brandy occupies four out of the ten top-selling SKUs in the state, with popularity decreasing by the size of the bottle. On YouTube, you’ll find songs detailing nicknames for the product: The Champagne of Maine, Bitch Whiskey, the Trailer Park Toddy.

Perhaps it’s something that comes with the territory of a high-proof, naturally caffeinated elixir that sells for only $13.99 a liter. “Why are Jaeger bombs popular with younger people, too? Not only is it sweet, but it also gets you jazzed up because of the caffeine and sugar,” says Andrew Kahrl, a Maine native who runs Quicksilver, a water shuttle in Penobscot Bay. He compares the flavor profile of Allen’s to the sour taste you get in your mouth “if you drink coffee with cream and sugar and don’t brush your teeth.”

And yet, despite Maine’s fierce claim on the brand, Allen’s is produced in Somerville, Massachusetts, as the flagship product and major moneymaker for M.S. Walker, a multi-generational, family-run manufacturer and distributor. M.S. Walker sells Allen’s all over New England, but of the 130,000 cases sold annually throughout the region, about 96,000 of those go to Maine, says Gary Shaw, the Vice President of Control Sales for the company. 

As the story goes, Allen’s first gained traction in Maine in the 1960s with coastal fishermen, who would pour it into their coffee to stay warm while out on the ocean. But over the decades, it’s taken on a darker reputation, too. Read any of the countless Allen’s trend pieces in Maine newspapers, and you’ll find cops associating it by name with cases of domestic disturbances, bar fights and drunk driving. According to a 2007 article in the Bangor Daily News, “Police officers…have been known to use empty bottles of Allen’s as props at mock accidents staged to warn minors about the dangers of drinking and driving.”

Perhaps it’s something that comes with the territory of a high-proof, naturally caffeinated elixir that sells for only $13.99 a liter. “Why are Jaeger bombs popular with younger people, too? Not only is it sweet, but it also gets you jazzed up because of the caffeine and sugar,” says Andrew Kahrl, a Maine native who runs Quicksilver, a water shuttle in Penobscot Bay. He compares the flavor profile of Allen’s to the sour taste you get in your mouth “if you drink coffee with cream and sugar and don’t brush your teeth.”

I came across Allen’s for the first time in December, somewhere that couldn’t be more disparate from Sangillo’s: Boston’s No. 9 Park, chef Barbara Lynch’s bastion of fine dining. During the restaurant’s annual holiday lunch service, I noticed a group being served what’s known to No. 9 insiders as “The Service”: a shot of Allen’s, a shot of Santa Maria Al Monte and a shot of espresso, presented with great pomp and ceremony.

“The Service” was the brainchild of former No. 9 Park bar manager Ted Kilpatrick, now the bar director for Cushman Concepts, the team behind O Ya in Boston, the Roof at Park South in Manhattan and the forthcoming Hojoko near Fenway Park. “It’s taking a working class beverage, but putting it on a pedestal and giving it a pristine presentation,” he says of the idea behind it.

He connected with the drink organically. “[M.S. Walker] probably has one of the better spirits portfolios and [Allen’s] was kind of hanging out in their portfolio,” says Kilpatrick. He liked the idea of supporting a locally made, affordable product over a behemoth like Kahlua, and Allen’s became the house coffee brandy at No. 9 Park for off-menu Espresso Martinis and White Russians.

Seeing its use behind the bar at the restaurant helped M.S. Walker realize that their flagship product could be recast as a heritage cocktail component on the higher end (though Allen’s is inexpensive, its coffee extract does come from higher-quality Arabica beans).

Allen’s has since crept onto the menus at State Park in Cambridge, where $8 gets you a glug with a mug of coffee, as well as at Oak Long Bar + Kitchen, where it’s offered in the “Block Island Iced Tea,” a $14 brunch cocktail containing Allen’s, vanilla vodka and hazelnut liqueur.

At the cocktail convention Thirst Boston this past November, Allen’s was matched with Portland’s Hunt + Alpine Club for a special collaborative showcase, and in February the bar’s owner, Andrew Volk, debuted a menu of $6 happy hour cocktail specials containing the coffee brandy.

The clientele that comes to Portland Hunt + Alpine is very different from those associated with sipping on Sombreros. “There are people that—if they saw what we were doing—would say, ‘What the fuck?’” says Volk. He first found the stuff in its quintessential state at Sangillo’s, which was located just down the street from his bar.

I went to Sangillo’s myself one Friday afternoon before they closed for good, where I tried my first Sombrero. Next to me sat a decade-long regular named Daniel. When I asked him what he thought about Allen’s getting a new life in cocktail bars, he rolled his eyes. “Nothing is real anymore,” he said.

I later asked him to clarify via email. “Put another way, wearing Bean boots doesn’t mean a thing if only worn on city streets and not hiking, camping and fishing in the great north woods of Maine,” he said. “Drinking Allen’s in a martini bar is different than mixing it with milk and playing pool [with] fishermen in Calais, Eastport, the Portland waterfront or, of course, Sangy’s.”

But if you ask Boston and New York-based bartender Kilpatrick, making a cocktail with Allen’s isn’t the same as overpaying for a pair of Bean boots on eBay. Allen’s contains real Arabica coffee. It has a high-proof dryness that cuts through rich dairy effectively. It has a true local heritage and supports a family-run company.

And much like bright orange hunter hats and fishermen sweaters—two other much-adopted staples of the Maine uniform—get ready to see more Allen’s in New York, courtesy of Kilpatrick, who wants to incorporate it into an as-of-yet-unnamed project opening inside of the Park South Hotel.

It’s possible that the high-end appropriation of Allen’s might fare better there. Before moving home to Maine to take over the Quicksilver, Kahrl was a theater major in New York. When asked how he’d react if he saw Allen’s on a Manhattan cocktail bar menu, he laughed, and said: “I’d probably be more likely to order it in New York than in Maine.” 

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