How the Café Brûlot Ventures Far Beyond the Basics - Imbibe Magazine Subscribe + Save

How the Café Brûlot Ventures Far Beyond the Basics

Toward the end of a 1911 banquet for bankers in New Orleans, the hall’s lights were dimmed, and an after-dinner libation rolled out. “[T]here flushed up a streaming flame,” wrote a witness. “By the side of it stood a Mephistopheles, ladle in hand, who poured his savory-smelling drink. For a moment it seemed that the banquet hall was a scene from some grand opera.”

The Café Brûlot is “an after-dinner drink” in the way a Super Bowl halftime show is “a bit of singing and dancing.” It’s among the showiest cocktails ever concocted. “What could be more sublime than to taste the delights of heaven while beholding the terrors of Hell?” said John Ringling of the Café Brûlot. He was one of the five Ringling Brothers, and a man who knew a thing or two about spectacle and showmanship.

The drink is, at heart, a rather simple one—brandy, sugar, and coffee, frequently enlivened with a bit of liqueur or fruit brandy, usually triple sec but sometimes kirschwasser. The spectacle comes in the presentation. The Cognac and sugar are compounded tableside in a fire-resistant bowl. The lights are extinguished. A long match sets a blue flame dancing. Then a two-foot-long spiral of orange peel, studded with cloves and held aloft with a fork, dangles down.

It serves as a sluice for ladling flaming brandy, which picks up flavors of orange and clove. (The drink should taste like “a very rich fruitcake,” noted a recipe in the Hattiesburg American.) The flames are then doused with hot coffee, and the drink served warm in demitasse cups.

Café Brûlot has been around for decades. Sue Strachan, in her new book about it for Louisiana State University Press, traces its history to the Armagnac region in southwestern France, where distillers opened their doors to occasional feasts during the winter distillation season. A meal would be capped with Brûlot d’Armagnac, which featured new distillate, sometimes mixed with spices, and put to the flame.

From Armagnac, the drink made the leap to New Orleans in the 19th century. Antoine Alciatore, who opened Antoine’s in 1840, grew up partly in Marseilles, and the founder of nearby Arnaud’s restaurant also hailed from southern France. As did Jean Galatoire, who opened his namesake French Quarter restaurant in 1905. Any or all were likely introduced to regional versions of Café Brûlot when young. “That’s my theory,” says Strachan. All still serve Café Brûlot.

The flaming drink made an impression on visitors to New Orleans. In 1900, a diner noted that a sumptuous meal “opened new vistas to his gastronomical conscience,” but it was the Brûlot that “struck him dumb.”

Café Brûlot was frequently trotted out for dignitaries. In 1909, William Howard Taft made two trips to New Orleans, first as president-elect and later as president. On his second trip, he dined twice at Antoine’s. (Noting his discomfort during his first dinner, restaurateur Jules Alciatore commissioned a capacious chair to accommodate the president’s notable girth during his second). Befitting a man of his stature and appetites, Taft’s Brûlot at Antoine’s was made with an 1865 Cognac, perhaps to make up for the version served during his prior trip to the city, which was lamentably prepared without flame owing to security concerns.

The Café Brûlot is “an after-dinner drink” in the way a Super Bowl halftime show is “a bit of singing and dancing.”

The Brûlot suffered along with so many other drinks during Prohibition. An antique dealer in New Orleans lamented that while he couldn’t keep Brûlot bowls in stock prior to the Volstead Act, afterward he had a dozen languishing in his storeroom.

Repeal ushered in what may be Café Brûlot’s golden years. After more than a decade of sipping furtively in one’s own house with the curtains drawn, or slipping into dank speakeasies, a Brûlot heralded one’s return to public drinking, essentially the equivalent of a village bonfire. It gained popularity nationwide. In 1936, the retailer Neiman Marcus ran full-page ads touting its Brûlot bowls, complete with a recipe. It also appeared to benefit from the midcentury mania for backyard grilling. “There is no more dramatic way for the man of the house to show his cooking prowess than with fire,” noted the Cincinnati Enquirer in 1969. “Men are finding that they can bring their fire and theatrical cooking indoors, too.” And that meant he presided over the Brûlot bowl as he did the backyard grill.

One can, of course, make a Café Brûlot at home, but it’s best enjoyed in New Orleans, preferably in one of the restaurants where Edison lightbulbs were not installed ironically. (New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells once referred to these French Quarter stalwarts as “something of a Jurassic Park for Creole cuisine.”)

The Café Brûlot is a perfect fit for New Orleans. Like the city’s residential architecture—all filigree and spindles and bright colors on the front, and a plain box on the back—the Brûlot is basic, but it still puts on a lively show for passersby. The Café Brûlot brought showmanship to drinks well before modern mixologists started to amaze and amuse with foams and smoke.

Which also makes it a perfect drink for the holidays, a season that seems to favor the operatic. This is the time for spectacle and light and warmth, both the physical and the nostalgic kind. Let’s light up, shall we?

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