Keoke Coffee is one of those drinks that I got a lot of orders for in the late 90s and early 2000s when I was starting to make cocktails. And I never really thought about it at the time, because it seemed like there were a hundred different coffee drinks that all looked very much like me at the time; The Keoke cafe, the Irish coffeeCoffee Nudge, Mexican Coffee and spanish coffee. Not to mention all the cocktails that became extensions of themselves if you wanted to add coffee to them; B-52, BFK, Brandy Separators and countless others I forgot. Honestly, the running joke at the time was that you didn’t really need to know the recipe, because you just had to pour a bunch of liqueurs into a glass and add coffee and whipped cream.
It worked, about 99 percent of the time. I am not joking.
But the Keoke came back into my sight last month when a good friend of mine, Mark Wheaton, who had been a West Coast bartender for over 40 years, came over and asked me 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.
Keoke Coffee falls into that era where it’s not old enough to earn the respect of 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 written record of its history. But here’s what I found on the internet:
Created circa 1967 by bartender/owner George Bullington at Bully’s Prime Rib (now closed) in Del Mar, California – just north of San Diego, Keoke Coffee is a somewhat elaborate blend of brandy, Kahlua, creme de cocoa, coffee and heavy cream. Supposedly started late at night and nicknamed (I cringe when bartenders name their drinks after them) George’s Coffee, the name was soon after changed to Keoke Coffee at the suggestion of a guest or employee Hawaiian whose history seems to be lost to the ages.
Side note – In drinking lore, “Keoke” is often said to be the Hawaiian word for “George,” which I can never but think of Paul Rudd’s scene in Forgetting Sarah Marshall:
Anyway. After trying a few recipes found online, I came to one conclusion: the drink is massive and may contain a heavy ingredient. Most recipes called for an ounce of brandy, Kahlua, and creme de cacao, which is a massive coffee drink. And to be completely honest, the Kahlua felt a bit redundant with every iteration I did. So I became more and more convinced to just leave it out. And, just like my well-known experience with the sour amaretto All those years ago, the drink just wasn’t strong enough. Until more help arrived in the form of bound American brandy from our friends at Heaven Hill Distillery.
Once you had a strong, proper brandy in place, the rest was easy. I skipped the Kahlua, but added a teaspoon of our homemade brown sugar syrup and a little ground cinnamon to replicate some of that sweetness, molasses and spice. What ended up on our menu is a Keoke Coffee that’s a study in contrasts: it’s simpler than the original, but more complex. Try it and tell me what you think.