An interesting discussion on Twitter recently bore on the coffee cocktail, a concoction popular from the 1880s until 1920 when National Prohibition ended the official drinks culture.
I wlll summarize a review of the literature as I found it, but keep the references to a minimum.
There was both an alcohol and non-alcohol version. The alcohol one generally used sugar, port, brandy, and egg. The proportions of brandy to port varied, everything from a film of brandy on the wine to equal parts.
No recipe I saw stated the type of port to use, and I’d imagine in practice a variety was used from ruby to vintage. David Wondrich, an authority on cocktails history, stated if tawny port is used the drink actually resembles coffee or café au lait.
I haven’t tried any version as yet, so must hold my counsel on what the various combinations would produce.
A typical c.1900 recipe can be read here, in The Gorham Cocktails Book. A dusting of nutmeg is advised, as in some other recipes, but a flourish will not alter the essential taste, much as at Starbuck’s today. Similarly some recipes called for a dash of bitters.
Charles Mahoney, in The Hoffman House Bartenders Guide, is restrained on the issue of taste, all but suggesting a coffee cocktail does not taste like coffee. He states it looks like coffee, hence probably the name, but goes no further, and considers the name a “misnomer”.*
A similar view is expressed in 1894 in a French book on English cuisine and baking that takes in both English and American drinks. See Alfred Suzanne’s comments highlighted.
Brown brandy would have made even red port drinks look darker, as would brown sherry if that type was used, and at least one recipe I found called for sherry in addition to port. Where crème de cacao was used, as in this 1909 recipe (Daily Star, Long Island, NY), that would deepen colour and add a suggestion of coffee taste. An 1896 reference to the drink, in the magazine Table Talk, is to same effect.
The latter two recipes seemingly were intended to make a drink not typically tasting of coffee do just that. A parallel idea can be inferred from Jack Grohusko’s c.1910 manual on wines and mixed drinks. Under the japing name Sabbath Cocktail, what is clearly the coffee cocktail has “1/2 pony” of black coffee added.
In the early 1920s, as seen in this 1921 issue of the trade journal Hotel Monthly, a coffee cocktail was a small black coffee served before a meal, without charge. The discussion suggests it was either a temperance version of the alcohol coffee cocktail or a re-dubbed, non-alcohol restaurant staple, the “coffee appetizer”.
I found a few references to this version both before and after 1920 especially for the South. This makes sense as large sections of the Bible Belt went dry even before WW I.
The discussion on Twitter concerned a text a tweeter posted on bartender etiquette. Source and publication date were not mentioned, it was apparently 1920s (when Prohibition was in force) but perhaps earlier. The context was usual drinking matters without reference to restrictive laws, that is.
A tip for bartenders stated that if a customer requests a coffee cocktail, do not retort that you have no coffee. Our exchanges bore on the meaning of this statement. David thought it was probably a bartender’s joke, because the alcohol version involved more trouble to make than many other drinks.
This is plausible, certainly, but if the instructions were written in the 1920s, the tip may have meant, don’t deny the customer a complimentary coffee, an item patrons might request to obey the Prohibition law, or lessen the effects of (illicit) alcohol consumed.
The coffee cocktail illustrates one of the many mysteries of etymology and origin in food and drink history. From steam beer to Stilton cheese, from Welsh Rabbit to the Michigan hot dog, people still argue how these things got their name and what they really meant.
The temperance version must take the cake though (further felicity of outcome!) as it was a simulacrum of a simulacrum.
N.B. As might be expected, in the early years after Repeal in 1933 the coffee cocktail has sporadic appearance. Here is an example from Buffalo, NY in 1934. G. Selmer Fougner, the New York-based drinks writer of the 1930s, mentions the drink a couple of times in the same year. But as for most of the pre-Prohibition cocktail panoply, it disappears for practical purposes by WW II certainly.
*It appears the misnomer idea originated with pioneering cocktails writer Jerry Thomas, whose 1887 edition of his bartenders guide first gave the recipe. Thomas states neither bitters nor coffee enter into the recipe, which appears to be true as a general rule, but later recipes did occasionally incorporate coffee, or another drink made with it, as shown above.