MxMo: Pousse Café

September 16, 2012

It’s Mixology Monday!

Mixology Monday is an online gathering of cocktail bloggers who simultaneously post on the same theme. The event has been dormant since about the time I started blogging, so this is my first go at it. Hosting and organising has been taken over by veteran blogger cocktail virgin slut. In a couple of days or something, there’ll be a round-up post over there with all submissions on the theme. Oh, and as it’s my first time, I hereby take a solemn oath to read every MxMo post, and try every MxMo drink that I have the ingredients for (and report back).

Edit: Here’s the round-up of all entries. I’m drinking my way through the ones I have ingredients for (about half).

This month’s theme is ‘Equal Parts’ – drinks that consist of ingredients all measured in equal parts (with the possible exceptions of bitters and garnishes). These drinks can be difficult. When they work, you get wonders such as the Negroni – Gin, Campari, and Vermouth – which is not a gin drink but something wonderful created at the meeting place of all three ingredients. When they don’t work, you lose the qualities of all component ingredients in a mess that is nay one thing nor t’other.

For my MxMo debut, I’ve chosen the Pousse Café – think of it as a kind of layered shot – and in retrospect, it was a mistake. I was thinking Pousse Café – a lost art of drinking from yesteryear – what could be better? In reality the Pousse Café is really the embodiment of anti-mixology (you’re actually striving to keep the ingredients apart), and the more I researched it the more I realised I was travelling further down a dead-end street. Add to that the fact that the ingredients – mostly sweet liqueurs and maybe some cream – and in fact all ‘dessert drinks’, are decidedly un-hip in modern cocktail circles, and it was clear that I was not on to a winner. But I’m a stubborn bastard, so I persisted, subjecting myself to hours of careful anti-mixing, ounces upon ounces of sipping and shooting, and further hours upon hours working on my abysmal photography. An entire weekend dedicated to the craft. The things I do!

So what is Pousse Café? It’s a drink made up of different  liquors – generally sweet liqueurs – carefully poured one on the other to create a pleasing colourful glass of striped layers. Originating in France, it became popular in New Orleans where it was drunk with after-dinner coffee; Pousse Café means ‘push-coffee’. Trust the French to come up with it. They have to have the appropriate beverage to accompany each course of their meal, and heaven forbid that they should have to endure even the coffee course without alcoholic refreshment.

Now I just said that the Pousse Café was a kind of layered shot. Maybe, in it’s modern guise (the B-52 or the Slippery Nipple) it is, but in times gone by it most decidedly was NOT! In fact, to down a Pousse in one was a drinking faux pas par excellence! I’ve got all my Pousse Café recipes from Trader Vic’s Bartenders’ Guide, and here’s what he has to say on the matter (in the section ‘People Bartenders Don’t Like’):

Another ass who makes bartenders blow their corks is the show-off who orders fancy drinks – usually when the bar is crowded and the rush is on – just to impress his companions. I almost lost one of my best men one night; it took three guys to hold him when one such nit-wit ordered an eight-color Pousse Café. The bartender sweat bullets getting the damn thing cooked up; spoiled the first two because he couoldn’t remember which liqueurs were the heaviest (you get an order for one of the fool things once every five years), but he finally sent it to the table with pride. It was beautiful, glowing with color. And what did the guy do but display it to his friends and then down it with one gulp like a straight shot! In case there’s anyone in the world who doesn’t know how to drink a Pousse Café, it should be sipped, one color at a time.

So aside from the correct way to drink a Pousse Café there’s a couple of things to learn from that passage. Firstly they’re damn difficult to make. Secondly, by 1948 when Trader Vic was writing, they were already old hat. Pousse was passé.

There is very little that I was able to find (online or in my books) written about Pousse Café, which was one of the reasons I wanted to try it in the first place. The gist seems to be that they were popular in the 1840s, perhaps peaking in the 1890s, and dropped off in fashionability quickly afterwards. Some reports say they were sipped layer by layer, and others suggest silver straws were used (I like the latter – the flavours seem to blend together more nicely without being jumbled up – but I’m not even going to write off the third drinking method. Shooting them is sometimes the best way to go, and there’s something lovely in a shot where three or four different flavours hit you one after the other – “ooh, ahh, oh, mmm”.)

Once again it was Eric Felten to the rescue. In his wonderful book, How’s Your Drink?, I found a few pages dedicated to Pousse Café. He writes about how Trader Vic’s story above was something of an urban legend designed to show the sort of mistakes country bumpkins made when travelling to big-city bars and ordering drinks that used to be very fashionable – and then not knowing what to do with them:

Take this New York Times headline from May 1903: “A POUSSE CAFÉ SACRILEGE: Customer’s Way of Disposing of the Drink Astounded Its Concocter.” The article describes a well-dressed customer — albeit one with “an air of the provincial about him” — ambling into the Fifth Avenue Hotel bar and ordering a Pousse Café. Bartender Hugh Dame, “one of the dispensers of exhilarating concoctions,” worked a quarter of an hour on an eight-layer masterpiece. “The purchaser watched the process and when the glass was placed before him asked for a straw.” As the bartender “saw the customer coolly insert it in the mixture and stir the contents of the glass, he clasped his hands to his hips and gazed in astonishment. He could not speak.” The customer drained the muddy mixture, paid and left, while Dame’s apoplectic face was fixed in “a rare study for an artist.”

Actually you can read most of what Eric Felten had to say about Pousse Café in his Wall Street Journal column, here.

On to technique. It’s not that difficult really. It just comes down to two things. First, know the ‘specific gravity’ of your drinks. Denser drinks will sit on the bottom. Higher alcohol content makes them go up. More sugar makes them go down. So booziest last, unless it’s particularly sweet.

Second, you have to pour them in very carefully. Otherwise, if the density is too close they’ll mix together, or one will streak up into the one above. Or, if you’ve got the densities wrong, the heavier one will sink to the bottom, but it will drag a line of the other colored spirit with it, mixing up the color scheme. So the usual trick is to pour them down the back of your bar spoon handle very slowly, with the tip of the handle just touching the surface of the liquid, right up against the side of the glass.

The drinks themselves? Well, I tried about a dozen, all from Trader Vic’s. They’re much of a muchness really. I hardly think we’re going to see a ‘Pousse Café revival’. You’re basically just sipping sweet liqueurs. It’s alright, but most of these drinks taste better mixed or a least very well iced. Or maybe you’re shooting them, which (despite admonitions from decades prior) is fine too, but if you’re doing shots, you’re hardly going to go to the effort of doing multi-layered Pousse Café, are you? Unless you’re showing off. And really that’s the only niche I can see for Pousse Café; a show-offy über-shooter to order at a bar, or serve with dessert as a fancy lark.

So I’m not going to choose a favourite or comment on each one that I tried. There’s not that much difference between them. Here’s a few:

Oh, and for these recipes, I’m just going to list the ingredients. Remember, this is ‘Equal Parts’ – just divide between the size of your glass – and the instructions are always “Pour carefully in order given into chilled Pousse Café glass to keep colors separate”.

.

.

.

La Creole

raspberry syrup/ liqueur

maraschino liqueur

yellow chartreuse

green chartreuse

The first I tried. The colours mixed a little.

.

.

.

Three-Fourths

orange curacao

yellow chartreuse

brandy

This is what Eric Felten calls Triple Pousse Café.

.

.

.

Stars and Stripes

creme de cassis

maraschino liqueur

green chartreuse

I have no idea why the name. Black, white and green?

.

.

.

Union Jack

grenadine

maraschino liqueur

green chartreuse

Again, ‘Union Jack’? Red, white and green?

.

.

.

Pousse L’Amour 1

maraschino liqueur

benedictine

1 egg yolk

cognac

Trader Vic gives three Pousse L’Amour recipes, all containing egg yolk. It sounded revolting, so I had to give it a go. It looked and tasted disgusting. The photo does not do justice to its awfulness. It was like one of those Baileys and soda concoctions we used to inflict upon each other in sadistic drinking games when we were students – all curdled up and horrible. Not wanting to sip the menstrual waste of a chicken through a straw, I did this one as a shot. The taste stayed with me all night. That was not a good thing. Avoid at all costs. (I can only assume that the name ‘Pousse L’Amour’ means this is the drink you give your lady-love when you want to give her the push.)

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.

Pousse Café  Rainbow

grenadine

green creme de menthe

maraschino liqueur

orange curacao

yellow chartreuse

brandy

I worked my way up to the big ones. This is also the one pictured at the start of this article.

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12-Layer Pousse Café

grenadine

creme de cassis

green creme de menthe

maraschino liqueur

elderflower liqueur

orange curacao

benedictine

yellow chartreuse

green chartreuse

fernet branca

cognac

over-proof rum

I decided to go for gold and make my own, with as many layers as I could, and incorporating a couple of non-traditional ingredients (St Germain, and Fernet – why not?). Even after making a miniature to test, I still managed to mix up the layers slightly, and wasn’t about to drink and retry just to get it perfect. Seeing as these things are all for show, you may as well add some high-proof liquor and set it on fire, right? I tried that too.

.

.

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Pousse Negroni

campari

Italian vermouth

gin

May as well, right? I gave it a go. Bad in layers, fine as a gimmicky shot, but nothing on a real Negroni.

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.

.

Table of Specific Gravities

This is a rough guide to the ordering of liquors in a Pousse Café, ‘heaviest’ first. Different brands, sweetnesses and alcohol contents will alter things.

The rule of thumb is that more sugar will sink and more alcohol will rise.

(Brackets) indicates a drink I didn’t try myself, approximate position deduced from the ordering in Trader Vic’s (which is a little inconsistent anyway).

<Triangle brackets> indicates a non-traditional drink I tried and added to the list.

grenadine

creme de cassis

(anisette)

creme de menthe

Chambord raspberry liqueur

vermouth

maraschino liqueur

<Elderflower Liqueur>

Marie Brizzard orange curacao

Grand Marnier

(creme de violette, creme Yvette, parfait amour)

Benedictine

kirsch

Yellow Chartreuse

Green Chartreuse

<Fernet Branca>

cognac

over-proof rum

coffee

cream

.

.

.

Conclusions

As I already said earlier, I think the anti-mixology of Pousse Café is a bit of a dead end. However, they’re not a total write-off. Most of those liqueurs are pretty nice, and it could well be worth knowing how to do them for that occasion when you want something pretty and unusual. Still, I can’t wait to get back to nice cold decent cocktails. I feel like a Daiquiri.

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14 Responses to “MxMo: Pousse Café”

  1. putneyfarm Says:

    Great post. The L’Amour does sound horrible, as you described. We’ve thought about making Pousse Cafe occasionally, but I think you dissuaded us…;-)

    The 12-layer looks cool, however…

    BTW- be sure to post your link here:

    http://cocktailvirgin.blogspot.com/2012/09/mixology-monday-announcement.html

  2. Bunnyhugs Says:

    Hmm. . . quite the Pousse Cafe fest.

    While I have made a few of these I never got into it with nearly your dedication. Three layers was probably my best effort.

    As you say, fun as a gimmick, but what’s the point? I think we need to remember they didn’t have TV or Internet in the 19th Century.

    I like a sweet liqueur after a meal, but I think I’d prefer a whole glass of Chartreuse, Grand Marnier or Benedictine to some fancy layered thing. Though on those rare occasions when you can’t make up your mind if you want Chartreuse, Grand Marnier or Benedictine. . . ?

  3. Fred Yarm Says:

    The egg yolk is often interpreted as an unbroken one such as in Leo Engel’s Knickebein; that also makes the glassware easier to clean. Thanks for doing Pousse-cafes for Mxmo!


  4. […] Layered drinks do not taste very good, but they sure are pretty. […]

  5. JFL Says:

    These really are beautiful drinks. I only ever really succeeded at one layered drink, my layers always tend to break.

    • JFL Says:

      Mostly not the densities that give me bother. It is the spoon method I can’t get down. I had alot of success when I iced everything down though.

      • theboolion Says:

        Yeah, it’s just fiddly. The spoon has to touch the side of the glass and the surface of the liquid, and even then you have to go really slowly (especially with liquids like coffee). Thanks for your comments.


  6. Holy crap, man, this MxMo debut is one for the annals. Despite Pousse Cafes being a barely-respectable mixological dead end, what you did was the boozy equal of trudging up Everest, complete with a chart an everything!

    Anyone who says “It sounded revolting, so I had to give it a go.” is clearly someone who thinks like me.

    I also really appreciate the research you did.

    Thanks for commenting on my site, and congrats on an extremely impressive first MxMo post.


  7. […] MxMo: Pousse Café (theboolion.wordpress.com) […]


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