When a friend suggested on a recent night out that we order Pousse Cafés—a drink generally consisting of three to seven Technicolor liqueurs layered like a rainbow cookie—I had no choice but to demur. It was Friday night, the bar was busy and anyone who orders a Pousse Café in such a circumstance is, plainly, a dick.
Plenty of anecdotal evidence has accumulated over the years to support this notion. In one instance, recorded in The New York Times in 1903 under the heading, “A POUSSE CAFÉ SACRILEGE,” a customer with “an air of the provincial about him” ordered said drink at a Fifth Avenue bar. After laboring for a full 15 minutes on a multi-tiered masterpiece, the bartender presented the drink to the customer who promptly stirred it with a straw and downed the artless mixture.
Through a series of similar stories, the Pousse Café cemented its reputation as the universal emblem of terrible customers. But, before it became a punch line, the Pousse Café was a beloved 19th-century after-dinner drink (“Pousse Café” translates to “coffee pusher,” something to follow your late-night jolt). A French invention, it migrated to the U.S. as a fashionable example of continental drinking, appearing in Jerry Thomas’s How To Mix Drinks in 1862 under the unironic heading, “Fancy Drinks.”
Designed as a showpiece, the Pousse Café has always put the eye before the palate. Even the record-holding rendition, while impressive at a staggering 34 layers, is hardly inviting. Bartender and cocktail historian David Wondrich sums up the experience of drinking such a cocktail: “Oh, there’s the Cognac. Oh, there’s the maraschino.” In other words, he says, “Stupid.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Pousse Café has resisted its own bona fide craft revival. This is at least partially because its categorically unmixed nature stands in diametric opposition to the ethos of the craft cocktail movement, which, at its essence, strives to create drinks that are greater than the sum of their parts. The Pousse Café is literally the sum of its parts, nothing more, those parts all stacked one on top of another like some cartoon mockery of mixology.
However, for some drinkers, like Crosby Gaige, author of the 1941 Cocktail Guide and Ladies’ Companion, the resolutely unmixed manner of the Pousse Café is the essence of its charm: “The successive sips give varying taste thrills.”
Likewise, Andrew Bohrer, a self-proclaimed fan of layered drinks, is one of the few modern craft cocktail bartenders—alongside Alex Negranza of Anvil and Eben Klemm of Rebelle—who appreciates the Pousse Café in all of its absurdist glory. In his days as bar manager at Mistral, Bohrer was known for his tradition of celebrating the 21st birthdays of externs by making “the biggest Pousse Café possible,” he explains.
Eben Klemm, a longtime bartender and cocktail consultant, takes a slightly different approach to the Pousse Café he created last year for the opening menu at Rebelle (it’s still available by request). Consisting of six layers—including housemade grenadine, Giffard Pamplemousse and green Chartreuse, each methodically striated—the meat of the drink comes in the form of housemade bourbon milk punch, “which itself is labor intensive,” explains Klemm. “It’s really all about wasted utility.”
Despite topping the pyramid of inefficiency, literally, a seven-layered Pousse Café has a loyal audience at Anvil, where Alex Negranza estimates he makes around 30 per week. “What initially started as a fun drink to have guests order from one of our bartenders quickly turned into a drink that people were coming in for,” says Negranza.
Caught somewhere between the dignified decorum of early 20th-century cocktailing and the vulgar reality of layered shots like the B-52 and Slippery Nipple, the Pousse Café may never make it back into the mainstream. But it’s nice to know that it lives on among the devoted few.