The Keoke Coffee is one of those drinks that I got a lot of orders for back in the late 90s and early 2000s when I was first starting out making cocktails. And I never really gave it much thought back then, because it seemed like there were a hundred coffee drinks that all seemed very similar to me at the time; The Keoke Coffee, the Irish Coffee, the Coffee Nudge, Mexican Coffee, and the Spanish Coffee. Not to mention all the cocktails that became extensions of themselves if you wanted to add coffee to them; B-52s, BFKs, Brandy Separators, and countless others I’ve forgotten. Honestly, the running joke back then was that you didn’t really need to know the recipe, because all you had to do with any of them was pour a bunch of liqueurs into a glass and add coffee and whipped cream.
It worked, like 99 percent of the time. I’m not kidding.
But the Keoke circled back into my field of view last month when one of my good friends, Mark Wheaton, who was a bartender for over 40 years around the West Coast came in and asked if I knew how to make a Keoke Coffee. And after a long conversation about the drink’s West Coast origins, I knew it would be a perfect addition to our menu at Pacific Standard.
The Keoke Coffee falls into that era where it’s not old enough to garner respect from cocktail historians (I couldn’t find an entry in the excellent Oxford Companion to Spirits and Cocktails) and not young enough to have a credible paper trail regarding its history. But here’s what I was able to dig up on the internet:
Created sometime around 1967 by bartender/owner George Bullington at Bully’s Prime Rib (now closed) in Del Mar, California – just north of San Diego, the Keoke Coffee is a somewhat elaborate mixture of brandy, Kahlua, creme de cacao, coffee, and heavy cream. Supposedly created late one night and dubbed (I do cringe when bartenders name drinks after themselves) George’s Coffee, the name was soon after changed to the Keoke Coffee at the suggestion of a Hawaiian guest or employee whose story seems to be lost to the ages.
Side Note – In the drink’s lore, it is often said that “Keoke” is the Hawaiian word for “George”, about which I can never not think of the Paul Rudd scene in Forgetting Sarah Marshall:
Anyway. After trying a few recipes found online I came to one conclusion: the drink is massive and might be one ingredient heavy. Most recipes called for an ounce each of brandy, Kahlua, and creme de cacao, which is a massive coffee drink. And to be completely honest, the Kahlua felt a little redundant in every iteration I made. So I became increasingly sold on just leaving it out. And, much like my well-known experience with the Amaretto Sour all those years ago, the drink simply wasn’t strong enough. Until some additional help came along in the form of bonded American brandy from our friends at Heaven Hill distillery.
Once you’ve got a strong, suitable brandy in place, the rest was easy. I skipped the Kahlua, but added a teaspoon of our house brown sugar syrup and some ground cinnamon to replicate some of that sweetness, molasses, and spice. What ended up on our menu is a Keoke Coffee that is a study in contrasts: it’s simpler than the original, yet more complex. Take it for a spin and let me know what you think.
Keoke Coffee Print Me
- ¾ oz / 22.5 ml dark creme de cacao
- ¾ oz / 22.5 ml Sacred Bond or other high-proof brandy
- 1 tsp / 5 ml brown sugar syrup
- hot, freshly-brewed coffee
- lightly whipped heavy cream
- In a preheated Irish Coffee glass, add creme de cacao, brandy, and brown sugar syrup
- Top up with hot coffee, leaving room for cream
- Finish with a generous float of heavy cream
- Garnish with ground cinnamon and serve
Recipe printed courtesy of jeffreymorgenthaler.com