A Brief History of Coffee and Booze

Drink Features Coffee

Few things affect our lives like coffee and alcohol. Mornings can either be made or broken by a cup (or three) of joe. Newbies often drown it in sugar and milk and are still somehow jittery and weird for the rest of the day. Veteran drinkers will not abide the instant stuff nor will they tolerate any obstacle that may lie between caffeinated goodness and their bloodstreams.

Alcohol is an entirely different story. At its best it makes giddy fools of us all, with happy hours and well-stocked parties giving us opportunities to either commiserate or celebrate milestones and setbacks with our friends and family. Unlike coffee, it’s not the drink that gets you going. Booze is often what’s waiting for you when you come back. After coffee kicks you out of the house to get stuff done, booze welcomes you on home. At its worst, well, you know happens during those bad booze moments. We’ve all seen that episode of Cops/Jersey Shore/Real Housewives of Drama City and Drunktown.

But for all that coffee and booze do for and to us, separately and together, we still hardly ever think about how our favorite drinks ever came to be. Even when they’re wonderfully mixed together. On those hurried morning Starbucks runs, you know damn well you’re not thinking about the origin of coffee. And you sure as hell aren’t thinking about alcohol consumption in ancient Mesopotamia while you’re downing after-dinner drinks with your friends on that one night out you managed to snatch away from your career and/or childcare responsibilities.

But that’s why we’ve got just the quick-and-boozy history lesson you need on your favorite beverage buddies, coffee and alcohol. We’ve got the scoop on your most beloved coffee-flavored liquor brands, new cocktail recipes to try and a glimpse into the future of this drink duo: a look at new research that has recently led to the development of a liquor made with used coffee grounds. So start brewing your favorite roast (or pour yourself a shot), kick back and read on to fill your brain with knowledge about those happy drinks that fill your belly.


The origins of coffee and alcohol consumption among humans are murky at best. While the consensus is that alcohol is the oldest drug in the world and that coffee was cultivated for consumption as early as the 15th century, a specific date of origin still hasn’t been established for either beverage.

What is known, however, is that the production, sale and governmental regulation of alcohol was already taking place as early in human history as 2100 B.C. in ancient civilizations like Sumer. Clay tablets found from that era show that Sumerian doctors and pharmacists would prescribe beer to their customers, according to Encyclopaedia Britannica. This medicinal use of alcohol continued on in early human history, even much later during ancient Egypt, around 1500 B.C.
From the Babylonians, the well-known Hammurabi’s Code, widely considered to be the oldest set of laws ever written (1750 B.C.), had its own laws for regulating, not the consumption of alcohol, but the “fair commerce” in it, according to “History of Alcohol and Drinking around the World,” by David J. Hanson.
If you want to get really technical, Hanson, a sociology professor at the State University of New York Potsdam, also mentioned “the discovery of late Stone Age beer jugs” as evidence that early human production of fermented beverages (probably made from berries, honey or other sugar-laden ingredients) had occurred around 10,000 B.C., much earlier than the Sumerians and their medicinal beer.

The cultivation of coffee on the other hand, was long estimated to have begun around the 15th century. But while there are a number of theories and legends surrounding the discovery of coffee, there’s only one that seems to have garnered a consensus: that early humans figured out that the berries and beans, were edible much earlier, at around 800 A.D. Both National Geographic and the National Coffee Association seem to agree: It all started with a bunch of dancing goats hopped up on caffeine. The goats (and the strange coffee berries) were discovered by their owner, an Ethiopian herder named Kaldi, who then brought the caffeinated berries to the attention of local religious leaders.

But dancing goats, herders and monks aside, the best part of waking up back then was the development of other coffee berry-related products around that time. Other Africans invented animal-fat-and-coffee-berry-protein bars and, get this, fermented coffee-berry pulp—coffee wine. It seems that coffee and booze went hand in hand even back in 800 A.D.

When talking about coffee and alcohol, a few brands leap to mind:

Tia Maria
Though the recipe for Tia Maria coffee liqueur dates back to the 17th century, it wasn’t until the 1950s that it was finally commercialized and the Tia Maria brand was born. The origin story behind Tia Maria is the stuff of cinematic legend. It’s got everything every thing you’d need for an action flick: a war, a fleeing family, a beautiful heiress, her brave maid and a mysterious box that contained the start of Tia Maria: the heiress’ family’s recipe for the vanilla-spiced rum-based coffee liqueur.

The liqueur’s namesake was the brave maid, the one who helped the Spanish heiress escape Jamaica and a colonial war and salvaged the mysterious box containing a pair of pearl earrings and the family’s recipe for Tia Maria. The heiress named the recipe after the maid to honor her. About 300 years later, in the 1950s, Dr. Kenneth Leigh Evans drank it at a friend’s house and immediately began manufacturing and selling it as Tia Maria, a brand of coffee liqueur. Today, Tia Maria is sold in over 60 countries.

Kahlua got its start when the Alvarez brothers got local businessman Señor Blanco to add their recently harvested coffee beans to a liquor Blanco was already developing. The famed Mexican coffee-and-sugar-cane spirit was first invented by Blanco in 1930, then later altered by chemist Montalvo Lara and has been manufactured in Mexico since 1936.

Kahlua comes from simple beginnings but the manufacturing process isn’t simple at all. After harvesting both the cane and coffee from Veracruz, Mexico, the coffee beans are dried, de-husked and aged for half a year, at which point the beans are roasted, ground up and brewed. The sugar cane spirit featured in Kahlua is produced after the cane has been harvested, crushed and juiced. The cane juice is then reduced to form a molasses to which water and yeast are added to ferment the mixture to produce the alcohol content in Kahlua. Afterwards, the resultant cane spirit is combined with the brewed coffee extract, caramel and vanilla. After resting for eight weeks, the Kahlua is then filtered, bottled and finally ready for consumption.

A nod to coffee’s Arabic origins, the name “Kahlua” is actually derived from the word “kahwa”, which is Arabic slang for coffee. Today, the coffee-flavored cane spirit is drunk at a rate of two million cases a year in 150 countries around the world.

Allen’s Coffee Flavored Brandy
Unlike Kahlua, Allen’s Coffee Flavored Brandy isn’t a worldwide phenomenon. Made of Brazilian coffee extracts and brandy, its success stems from a small but extremely loyal following curiously centralized in Maine.

Though known as the “Champagne of Maine,” Allen’s Coffee Flavored Brandy actually hails from Somerville, Mass., as a product of the family-owned spirit company M.S. Walker. While the company website touts the brandy’s strong coffee flavor and lack of “additional sweetness,” David A. Fahrenthold of The Washington Post once wrote that “it coats the tongue with syrupy sweetness.”

As Allen’s has been the top-selling spirit in Maine for over 20 years, it’s no wonder M.S. Walker has been able to boast of the beverage’s ability to “span generations” and that its reach extends to “all regions of the state from fishing villages to downtown Portland.”

Despite Facebook groups dedicated to it and its role in signature cocktails like the Sombrero, you’d be hard-pressed to find it anywhere else other than Maine, where they drink more than a million bottles each year. As a result, the 60-proof liquor also gets listed by name in local police reports in substance-abuse-related incidents, according to the Bangor Daily News.

Remember that dark side of booze we mentioned? Turns out even a seemingly mild-mannered coffee brandy like Allen’s can bring that side out of someone, just like any other hard liquor.

Irish Coffee
No discussion of coffee and booze would be complete without mentions of the two most iconic cocktails that feature this classic mixology combination: Irish coffees and the Dude-approved White Russian.

The original recipe for an Irish Coffee was invented in 1943 by chef Joe Sheridan of what was then a restaurant housed within Ireland’s Foynes Flying Boat Terminal. On a cold night in 1943, Sheridan, asked to serve “something warm” to flight passengers who had just landed, invented the Irish Coffee: a combination of coffee, brown sugar, Irish whiskey, and lightly whipped cream, that is served, according to the Foynes Flying Boat Museum, in a pre-warmed glass which is then filled with a teaspoon of brown sugar, Irish whiskey, black coffee, all to “within 1cm of the brim [of the glass].” After that, “lightly whipped cream” is added on top of the coffee “over the back of a spoon so that it floats on top of the coffee.” The museum goes on to note that the cocktail should not be stirred, but rather the coffee/whiskey mixture should be drunk “through the cream.”

White Russian
The origin of The Dude’s signature cocktail actually lies within the story of another coffee cocktail, the Black Russian. According to Liquor.com, the Black Russian was invented in the late 1940s by bartender Gustave Tops of Brussels’ Hotel Metropole as a signature drink for the then-American ambassador to Luxembourg, Perle Mesta. The Black Russian is basically vodka and the inky-dark Kahlua. Hence the name, Black Russian. The White Russian, as consumed by The Dude, was invented later, sometime in the 1960s, with the addition of cream (or milk) to the vodka/Kahlua base.


Already smacking your lips at the thought of imbibing those classic cocktails? Well, hold on we’ve got three more recipes to tantalize your tastebuds and help you get your buzz on in more ways than one.

1. Spiked Thai Iced Coffee
Our spiked Thai Iced Coffee is a combination of two recipes: Saveur’s (virgin) Thai Iced Coffee and the spiked version by food blogger Rachael White of SetTheTable. Both recipes use coffee and condensed milk as is tradition in Thailand, but we added the 2% milk to cut the cloying sweetness of condensed milk. And of course, as suggested by White, we spiked our Thai Iced Coffee with vodka.

Per glass, you’ll need:
1 cup of brewed coffee (chilled)
¼ cup (2 oz.) of sweetened condensed milk
1.5 oz. of milk
Ice cubes
About 2 oz. of vodka

To assemble:
Fill a glass halfway with ice. Stir condensed and regular milk together in a bowl and chill in refrigerator for about an hour. The order you pour will result in a different look. We poured the milk mixture first, then the vodka and then the coffee over the back of a spoon that sits on top of the glass to ensure that the coffee floats on top as a distinct layer, not mixing with the milk. Once you’re ready to drink it, just stir the layers together and enjoy.

2. Sauza Tequila Import Co.’s Pumpkin Spice Margarita
Now that it’s October, it’s time to put the fruity tropical drinks away and usher in Pumpkin Spice season. And what better way to do that than with a shot of tequila and the warm flavors of pumpkin pie?

For two servings you’ll need:
¼ cup Sauza Blue Silver 100% Agave Tequila
¾ cup cream
2 tbsp. Torani Pumpkin Spice Syrup
¼ cup sugar
1 tsp. vanilla extract
½ tsp. cinnamon
½ tsp. pumpkin pie spice
1 ½ cups freshly brewed hot coffee
whipped cream and cinnamon sticks

To assemble the margaritas:
Mix cream with pumpkin syrup, sugar, vanilla, spices and hot coffee in a saucepan and heat through. Then pour the mixture into two coffee mugs, add tequila, stir and then top each mug with whipped cream and cinnamon.

3. Occam’s Razor
Invented by David Buehrer and Bobby Heugel of Greenway Coffee Co. and Anvil Bar & Refuge of Houston, Texas, Occam’s Razor is a coffee cocktail that really brings the heat. And this time it’s not coming from the coffee. This cocktail’s chilled and uses cold brewed coffee. The heat actually comes from the use of a hot chili tincture (grain alcohol/vodka that’s been heavily infused with hot chili peppers like habaneros.)

For one serving you’ll need:
3/4 oz. reposado or añejo tequila
1 shot fresh espresso or 3/4 oz. cold brew coffee
3/4 oz. heavy cream or half-and-half
3/4 oz. white crème de cacao
2 dashes chili tincture

To assemble:
Combine all of the above ingredients in a cocktail shaker filled with ice. Shake for 10 seconds and double strain the mixture into a cold glass. You can top it with a mint leaf if you’d like. To make the tincture, just fill a jar with hot peppers like habaneros and pour high-proof vodka over it. Let the peppers soak for three days. Remove peppers and use as described above.


So we’ve seen so far that our favorite beverages have been mixing since about 800 A.D. But why stop there? Why not make a liquor from coffee instead of simply mixing the two? A team of scientists from the Institute for Biotechnology and Bioengineering at the University of Minho in Portugal, has just taken us a few steps toward making such a liquor a reality.

We spoke with lead researcher Solange Inês Mussatto Dragone about her brand new study on how to produce a distilled liquor from spent (or used) coffee grounds. Dragone’s team was able to successfully ferment and distill a liquor that contains the extracted aroma compounds of SCG within it.

Her study began with the notion that all over the world, there is an abundance of used coffee grounds with no practical purpose. Along with that Dragone and her team saw that there was a need, in the spirits industry, for the creation of new liquors made from non-traditional source materials like SCG:

“SCG is a raw material produced in large amounts in many countries and that has been practically not used up till now,” Dragone says. “Therefore, I decided to focus my research works on the valorization of this industrial residue by using it as raw material for other industrial processes. The idea of producing a beverage distilled from the SCG arose because currently there has been an increasing interest in the production of alcoholic beverages from non-conventional raw materials, and, considering that coffee is a drink very much appreciated around the world, perhaps a distilled beverage with coffee aroma could also be greatly appreciated in the beverage market.”

However, her team’s initial research hit a snag early on: They found that the sugars present in SCG were simply not enough to “produce a reasonable amount of alcohol to be distilled.” And so Dragone set out to extract only the aroma chemical compounds in SCG to create a liquor that still used SCG, but what is now a form of alcohol scented with the aroma of coffee and not simply just mixed with brewed coffee.

“Many efforts were then directed to define the conditions to be used in the extraction step. The remaining steps of the process (fermentation and distillation steps) are in general similar to those used in other processes for the production of distilled beverages. However, the fermentation conditions as well as the yeast strain used in the process were carefully selected to promote the formation of high ethanol [alcohol] amount from the SCG extract used as fermentation broth.”

The process itself, of producing an SCG-based distilled liquor, is a three-stage process: extraction, fermentation and distillation.

This process is very similar to making other forms of coffee flavored liquor. But it is the first stage, the extraction of aroma compounds from the SCGs that allows Dragone’s liquor to stand out from the pack.

According to her published study’s article, “Production, chemical characterization, and sensory pro?le of a novel spirit elaborated from spent coffee ground,” the extraction process consisted of putting the SCG through a “hydrothermal process” which mixed the SCG with water and then heated the mixture to 163 degrees Celsius for about an hour. Afterwards, the residue left over was put into a centrifuge and spun around until the solid parts of the mixture were separated from the liquid (the SCG extract to be used in the next two stages.)

The SCG extract was then treated with a combination of sucrose (sugar), potassium metabisulfite and calcium carbonate to create a fermentation broth to which yeast would be added in the second stage, the fermentation stage.

In addition to creating a new form of coffee liquor from SCG, it was also discovered that the distillate contained 17 volatile compounds (chemicals) all of which served to enhance the taste and “[promoted] pleasant characteristics to the product.”

Dragone and her team concluded the following about their new SCG-based liquor: The SCG distillate produced at the end of the study is suitable “for human consumption.” Coffee was the dominant aroma of the distillate as expected and there was a pleasant smell and taste to the distillate. The taste is a bit “pungent” but Dragone and her team have determined that it is because it was newly produced at the time of the tasting and they assert that further improvements could be made to the taste of the distillate with the aging of it.

Though the study and production of the distillate was a success, Dragone and her research team have no intention of selling the liquor themselves, but they would be open to selling the technology to a company as “it would be a pleasure for us to see our product being commercialized.”

It’s been a long, strange trip through thousands of years worth of coffee and booze related history. From Stone Age-era beer jugs to the future of our cocktails that seemed to have been buzzed on caffeine throughout most of human history, it seems safe to say that as mankind has known these beverages separately and apart, that our love and pursuit of coffee and booze is real and runs deep and it’s not going anywhere anytime soon.

So like The Dude, just pour yourself a White Russian and enjoy the ride.

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