People have been putting whiskey in coffee (and tea) for a long time. It probably goes back to…oh, I’m guessing here, but probably about 20 minutes after the first time whiskey and brewed coffee were in close proximity. If it took that long. The Irish Coffee (which gets the David Wondrich Treatment in the Summer issue of Whisky Advocate) is a classic all-in-one real-to-life cocktail with coffee, whiskey, sugar, and cream, but most people just do what my old boss at the Timberline Bar used to do: brew a strong cup and pour a certain amount of whiskey right in it, cream and sugar optional. “Catch the buzz; stay awake to enjoy it,” he’d always say.
“Finishing” whiskey has only been around for about 25 years, in contrast, giving whiskey a twist at the end of its maturation by disgorging it from the barrel where it quietly slept, breathing deeply, exhaling for the angels’ enjoyment, and then introducing it to a new and different barrel: wine, rum, fresh oak. The result is a blend of flavors that — in the hands of a master — will enhance and change the base whiskey.
The idea of a mashup of these two combinations hit Brian Prewitt at A. Smith Bowman in Fredericksburg, Va., last summer. With the help of local coffee roaster Ricks Roasters he moved ahead with the idea of combining whiskey-finished coffee and coffee-finished whiskey. He dumped three barrels and sent them over to Ricks. “One was a 7 year old, and two 8 year olds, so they would have gone for Bowman Brothers,” Prewitt said, and noted: “Standard American oak barrels, #3 char.”
A few days later, John Freund at Ricks opened up the barrels and packed them with beans. “I do remember one we opened up had about a shot left in it,” he told me. “My daughter truly enjoyed it!”
I asked how the beans went in: green or roasted? “The beans go into the barrels after being roasted,” he said. “We have heard of others doing it with green coffee. I finally found someone who had tried [one of them] and ours. He said that our coffee picked up more of the bourbon flavor. The green going in was still good, but different.”
I can vouch for that. I tried the Ricks Bourbon Barrel Heritage beans today, along with some Cooper’s Cask beans, which co-founder John Speights told me went green into a barrel used for single malt whiskey at an undisclosed distillery, aged for 40-60 days, and then roasted. The Cooper’s beans were notably less darkly roasted than the Ricks; a house mark for Cooper’s. I tried both coffees freshly ground, and tasted them black. They were both good, but different.
Cooper’s Cask — Nose of cookie dough, toasted walnuts, milk chocolate. Not overly bitter, slightly acidic. Quite drinkable black. Whiskey influence is subtle; some sweetness up front, a twisting tease of whiskey on the finish. Not overdone.
Bourbon Barrel Heritage — Roasted beans, light notes of vanilla, caramel, pepper, and warehouse ‘reek’. Good level of acidity, bourbon character is present, but not dominant. Whiskey notes expand as it cools. Coffee enhanced by bourbon barrel depth.
Freund supplied his own tasting notes. “The barrels and bourbon add a rich sweetness and that vanilla character. The first taste is all bourbon, vanilla, sweet. Then the coffee mellows into berries and apples. At the end, the coffee flavor seeps in and takes control. That’s when you get the smoky richness and earthiness of the coffee itself. But the real treat is a few minutes later when the oaky butteriness really sneaks up on you in the aftertaste. I think of it as a desert coffee.
Speights notes that his partner Jay Marahao has been sourcing beans for years. “The quality of the bean is probably the most important aspect of the entire process. The tasting notes of the bean will be enhanced and complemented to the different types of barrels used. We are in the works with other barrels and bean combinations as we speak.”
The coffees were a fine tasting this afternoon as what I hope is the last major snowfall of the season is whitening up the outdoors. But there are better ways to enjoy it: I purchased some of the Ricks at the Bowman’s gift shop back in the fall, and I can tell you that it makes a great cup with a stack of pancakes covered in maple syrup!
But what about the other half of this barrel-sharing project? Once the beans had picked up the bourbon flavor from Prewitt’s loaned barrels, they were dumped at Ricks, and the barrels sent back to Bowman. Brian laughed at how hard it was to get every last bean out of the barrels without disassembling it.
That was essential if they were to call it a “finished” whiskey as opposed to a “flavored” whiskey. “Finished is what I’m going to go for; there were no coffee beans harmed in the making of this whiskey,” he said emphatically. “We didn’t spend hours getting all of the coffee beans out of there to call it a flavored whiskey. If we have to, we will, but the idea was to use a barrel that had held something else, and to work with another artisanal creator to do that. Whether the TTB will see it that way or not is up to them. But it’s just an oak container; one that happened to hold coffee.”
Prewitt refilled one of the barrels, but not with the whiskey that had come out of them. “We put an older bourbon back into the barrel, a 9 year old, and it’s been in there a little over six months.,” he said. This Monday he’ll be tasting it to see if it’s going to be the next Abraham Bowman bottling, a series of one-barrel one-offs that push the envelope of what whiskey is.
I got to taste it with Prewitt and Freund at the distillery back in early November, when it had been in the barrel just shy of a month. The whiskey then was intriguing; picking up a fair amount of coffee already, but not overwhelmed by it at all. I’m hoping that what Brian tastes on Monday will be well-integrated, and worthy of bottling.
And then I’m going to make some pancakes.