Coffee people love to talk about coffees' "tasting notes" about as much as wine people love to use words like "soft" and "full-bodied." You may be under the impression that your coffee tastes like coffee, but coffee people will be quick to inform you that your coffee actually has notes of juniper, or melon, or sweet peppers, or... yams. As fine dining restaurants are starting to gain an interest in improving coffee service, the idea of "pairing" is crossing from wine and chocolate into coffee as well. We don't just want to sweeten or flavor our coffee anymore; we're striving to enhance the entirety of an experience. Yes, Coffee Sommeliers are now a thing.
And, as I discovered at Fremont's The White Rabbit last weekend, they might not be such a bad thing. More restaurants and bars might do well to include coffee experts on staff. After all, if you are going to serve coffee, you really ought to serve it well. And if you are going to pair your coffee with things, you really ought to make sure those things actually pair with coffee.
For example, care to know what does not pair with coffee? Let me tell you.
The other day, I was perusing coffee shops online when I came across a cafe called "The White Rabbit" in Fremont. Surprised I'd managed to miss any of Fremont's cafes, I did a little research and realized that the venue, which opened last year, isn't your average coffee shop -- it's an over-21 "beans and booze" bar that specializes in live music, karaoke, trivia nights, and got into the cafe listings just a little bit sneakily.
While the venue is known for its musically centered events, the bar is known for its Stumptown espresso and coffee cocktails. Coffee cocktails are tough to pull off with finesse, and not many bars around town risk putting a menu focus on them, so you have to hand it to The White Rabbit for being willing to go out on the limb. And they start out on the right rabbit-foot: Stumptown is a great selection for coffee cocktails since the signature Hairbender espresso profile leans toward sweet fruits, faint florals, and dark caramel - a profile easily folded into many of the classically bourbon, brandy, rum, or liqueur-based themes.
But after a strong beginning, the concept begins to go awry. The straight shot of espresso I ordered upon arrival was served at nearly 3 ounces. Although (surprisingly) not terrible, it was watery and unevenly extracted, making it an unstable component in any more elaborate composition. The real trouble came when I, intrigued by its unusual nature, ordered the "Hair of the Rabbit," advertised on their menu board as an Americano with vanilla vodka.
The Buckshot: beans meet booze at Fremont's White Rabbit.
Vodka, it turns out, is kind of like a giant magnifying glass for imperfections in coffee. Like using alcohol to sterilize a wound, all of the distracting complexities of the natural coffee were suddenly stripped away, leaving something about as awkward and uncomfortable as licking a pinscreen box.
Which brings me, after all of that, to answering the question: Vanilla vodka. Vanilla vodka and coffee do not pair well. Any really good bartenders out there are welcome to prove me wrong, but meanwhile, I'll stick to the tried and true. It will be nothing but Spanish Coffee for me.
And while I intend to return to The White Rabbit for any number of fun shows, I anticipate I won't be returning for the coffee any time soon.