A Bittersweet 'Champagne of Maine'
Monday, January 9, 2006
PORTLAND, Maine -- The dark-brown liquid that some people call "the champagne of Maine" tastes, to the uninitiated, like equal parts alcohol, sugar and coffee-pot slag. It puckers the cheeks, coats the tongue with syrupy sweetness and leaves a mouthwash feeling on the lips.
This is coffee-flavored brandy. It is one of the odder stories of American imbibing, the number-one-for-20-years-running liquor obsession of Maine.
The caffeine-infused spirit, largely unknown outside New England, is a staple at house parties, mill town bars and urban street corners here -- popular enough that a Bangor newspaperman once suggested putting it on the back of Maine's state quarter.
On the other hand: "I've thought, in more than one case, that you can put it on someone's headstone," said Erik Steele, an emergency-room physician who works at four hospitals in rural Maine.
In this state, it turns out, everything that is both fun and tragic about alcohol is embodied in the same intensely bittersweet drink.
"People are addicted to coffee brandy here," said Barbara Dacri, executive director of a Portland-based treatment center called Crossroads for Women.
Compared with those of other states, Maine's totals of chronic and binge drinkers are not terrifically high. But officials say alcohol remains this state's most readily available and widely destructive drug, cited by 59 percent of those seeking substance-abuse treatment here.
And in Maine, officials say you can't talk about alcohol for long without talking about one particular brand: At last tally, the best-selling bottle of hard liquor in the state was the roughly half-gallon container of Allen's Coffee Flavored Brandy. The No. 2 seller was . . . the liter-size bottle of Allen's.
According to the state, Allen's sells 98,000 cases of its 60-proof spirit a year -- more than double the second-best-selling spirit. It has been Maine's favorite for two decades.
"We're very grateful to the consumers of Maine," said Gary Shaw, a vice president at M.S. Walker Inc., which makes Allen's by combining coffee extracts with "neutral brandy" at its plant in a Boston suburb.
At Raena's Pub in the northern city of Bangor, bartender Carrie Smith said she can easily spot the brandy drinkers.
"Bleached-blonde, teased hair. . . . They always play the 'Redneck Woman' song" on the jukebox, she said, describing the typical drinker who orders a "sombrero," or Allen's mixed with milk. Smith said she once saw a woman dump her cocktail on the head of a beer-drinking man who referred to the drink by its nickname, "fat ass in a glass."