Spanish Coffee Still Allowed to Impress at Il Bistro

Brian Teutsch, 2007.

This Week's Suspect: Despite a similar name and a common ingredient, Spanish coffee is more than just a twist on the better-publicized Irish coffee. As a matter of fact, despite the ambiguous origins of both, Spanish coffee is near-universally considered the predecessor to one of America's favorite spiked beverages.

As with any drink that depends mainly on a single, bold ingredient, Spanish coffee is prone to many different variations, although most recipes call for at least coffee liqueur and cognac, a glass with a sugared rim, and a large amount of high-proof booze in order to start a fire hot enough to oxidize.

The Pacific Northwest has embraced Spanish coffee lovingly, with Portland staple Huber's helping to cement the drink into legal speedball history. Huber's bartender Alex Perez has even been informally coined the "Baryshnikov of the Spanish coffee," in reference to the disciplined flair with which he prepares the fiery quaff.

The Bar: Garnering prestige upon prestige from countless local publications, Il Bistro's Spanish coffee is simply without equal in Seattle. Whether it's the bartender's adept, unaffected handling of the mesmerizing blue flame as it caramelizes the coffee's sugared rim or the dense flavor of the flashy pick-me-up, I've yet to hear of a single bar that offers a worthy competitor within city limits (OK, I hear Zig Zag makes one, but featuring every drink they do well would probably fill its own weekly column).

David, one of Il Bistro's prized bartenders, wielded the blue flame this time around. He lined the rim with sugar before adding a large amount of the notoriously high-proof Stroh to start the caramelizing fire. Cognac, Tia Maria, and a piping-hot Cafe Vita brew finished the mixture, extinguished and ready before my hot little hands. As if burning the restaurant down wasn't enough of a feat unto itself, he prepared most of the drink with just one hand.

While drinking the fruit of the flame, I got to hear David calmly admonish a fellow patron for cursing. Everything at Il Bistro seemed so calculated, almost rehearsed. Inside, it's hard to even imagine the practically apocalyptic binges the "masking effect of caffeine" had come to be associated with in dorm rooms and college bars across the nation.

But a rose by any other name . . .

The Effect: While not even in the same ballpark as the skull-crushing Trash Can, I have to say Spanish coffee is the most "influential" of all prior legal speedballs. Maybe it was the spectacle of the presentation, the intimate atmosphere of Il Bistro, or the admitted nigh-emptiness of my stomach, but I felt almost immediately rocked.

Threat to Society: Two out of Four Loko.

Spanish coffee at Il Bistro is sort of a paradox: While the establishment carries a disarming atmosphere, the drink itself packs enough buzz (in both senses of the word) to build a firm foundation to aspiring rabble-rousers' nights of mayhem. I'm almost certain I would've rated this a little higher on the Destruct-o-Scale if the exact same drink were served at somewhere like the Water Wheel.

It inspires the question: What is more at fault in antisocial drinking? The content of the drink itself, or the context in which it's served? The last time I had any drink with Stroh in it was in a college classmate's basement; while Il Bistro's Spanish coffee inspired an excited inner dialogue, my prior Stroh experience only inspired dry heaves and quiet self-loathing.

Seemingly absurd items like Four Loko-centric pairing dinners have been making the news in Philadelphia without a single soul being stabbed in the eye with a salad fork or vomiting themselves to death. Perhaps if we reflect upon the act of drinking as more than just an idle injection of chemicals, our nation can begin to have a more rational discussion of alcohol's place within society.

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