What is Spanish coffee?
Espresso martini, move aside. Spanish coffee, a Portland classic, is the fun and extravagant coffee cocktail that’ll give you a massive boost of energy on your night out. While there are different ways to prepare it, it’s usually a mix of a liqueur and coffee. It can come topped with cherries, whipped cream or even flambéed. The drink was made popular at Huber’s Cafe in Portland where it’s prepared in a theatrical show of fire and caramelisation and served with a large dollop of Grand Marnier scented whipped cream.
Of course, the combination of coffee and hard liquor is not a new thing. There are already countless ways of drinking coffee across the globe, and a caffeinated cocktail is no different - think Irish coffee fortified with whiskey, or Italy’s caffè corretto (a shot of espresso with a shot of liquor, usually grappa or sambuca). But it’s the Spanish version that made its way to the States via colonisation, and that establishments like Huber’s café have turned to for inspiration and immortalized. In most of Spain, where the drink most likely finds its origins, it’s called “carajillo” stemming from the Spanish word “coraje” meaning courage. In regions like Castellón it comes served in a sugar-rimmed glass that is first flambéed with lemon and coffee bean-infused brandy to caramelise the edges and give the final drink a warming, aromatic twist. This elaborate style is popular in fancier restaurants and cocktail bars. In other regions like Catalonia the preparation is simpler: coffee and brandy are mixed with sugar on the side for the drinker to add at his or her discretion. The drink is also popular in Latin and South America, made with brandy in Colombia, Licor 43 or mezcal in Mexico, and the more traditional rum in Cuba. There are as many Spanish coffee variations as there are coffee styles to indulge in, making it easy to personalise to your tastes.
Portland’s oldest restaurant definitely popularised the coffee cocktail and made it an institution, but its origins are the product of a cross-Atlantic recipe movement. When Cuba was still a Spanish colony, army folklore says that Spanish troops brought their version of the carajillo to the battlefield, mixing coffee and rum for a boost of courage. Spanish invasions of the rest of Central and South America meant that the drink spread, finding it’s way to Mexico and all the way down the canal to Colombia. Huber’s Café records claim that the drink came to Portland in 1975 after then-owner Jim Louie took the recipe from the Fernwood Inn in Milwaukee, who in turn took it from a bar in Mexico. But it’s Huber’s Café that created the show. When you order a Spanish coffee at Huber’s today you’ll be met with a tableside fire spectacle of sorts involving swirling blue flames and a stellar mix of liquors, resulting in an incredibly flavourful and smooth drink peppered with nutmeg and with a story to boot.
There are variations on how to make Spanish coffee but three ingredients are standard across the globe: coffee, coffee liqueur, and rum. Additions like whipped cream or a caramelised sugar-rimmed glass aren’t essential but definitely add personality. You could even top with some homemade coffee caviar.
The Huber’s Café recipe is perhaps the most well-known and elaborate iteration that involves lighting the rum on fire to caramelise the sugars on the glass, resulting in a flaming Spanish coffee. Here’s a list of all the ingredients that goes into preparing the courage-giving cocktail.
¾ oz. 151-proof rum
¼ oz. triple sec
1 ½ oz. coffee liqueur (Kahlúa is Huber’s choice, using more than any other bar in the U.S.)
3 oz. fresh-brewed coffee
1 lemon wedge
Whipped cream to garnish
All the steps
Run the cut edge of the lemon wedge around the rim of the glass and press the rim into superfine sugar, shaking off the excess. Add the rum and triple sec to the sugar-rimmed glass and carefully ignite, slowly turning until the glass has warmed and the sugar has begun to caramelise. Add the coffee liqueur (the flame should go out at this point) and top with hot coffee. Garnish by gently floating the whipped cream on top using the back of a spoon, then adding grated nutmeg.
Best glassware for Spanish coffee
If you’re lighting a glass on fire you need to make sure it’s fire-proof and won’t shatter in your hands. A red wine or Irish coffee glass that’s tempered and with a stem to hold onto is your best bet to recreate the drink. Just make sure you hold only the stem while lighting the liquor on fire, and keep the glass away from your face as the flames can rise up before quickly dying down.