By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
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."
Mainers say Allen's is sometimes favored by vagrants, who like its low price, or by teenagers, who mainly like beer but sometimes choose Allen's because it lacks the burn of other hard stuff.
But, in the world of coffee brandy drinkers, women seem to be the core customers.
One recent afternoon at a halfway house run by Crossroads for Women outside downtown Portland, all but one of nine women had a story about coffee brandy, and she wasn't from Maine.
The others in the living room talked about how they would pour it in morning coffee, hide it in a Dunkin' Donuts cup, or take it to school in a water bottle. How, in Portland's housing projects, its nickname was "gorilla milk" because it turned people into animals. How the milkshake taste of a sombrero drew them in and the coffee buzz kept them going.
"I can drink coffee brandy for 24 hours," said Amy, 38, who like the others asked that her last name not be used. "And the caffeine and the booze even each other out."
"You can down 'em," agreed Catrina, 26.
Lori, 28, said she remembered her mother drinking Allen's when she was growing up, and smiled at her own memories of the syrupy drink with a kick. "That initial warm from drinking," she said, relishing the thought. "It's like, 'Whew!' "
But soon after, another idea stopped her: "My kids, that's what they'll remember me drinking."
The story of brandy's influence is also written in the state's police logs, where the drink and in particular the Allen's brand have shown up in connection with crimes both odd and heartbreaking.
In 2003, a woman from Penobscot dug up the ashes of her boyfriend, then later explained, "I never would have done that if I hadn't been drinking Allen's," according to a report from the time. A year before, a man from Bangor had been discovered asleep in a stranger's bed wearing stolen pink underwear; he explained later that he had consumed a half-gallon of brandy.
One of the most notorious incidents involving coffee brandy occurred in 1997, when a drunken driver with a half-empty bottle in his car plowed into a car at a Maine Turnpike tollbooth. A woman and her daughter in the other car were killed.
Police say they notice the drink showing up in less newsworthy incidents all the time -- on the kitchen counter during a domestic-violence call, in the car of youths caught shoplifting liquor. Officer Ryan Reardon of Waterville, Maine, said he has encountered coffee brandy so many times that he can find it with his nose.
"Just by smell, you can tell someone's been drinking it," he said, asserting that the sickly sweet, alcoholic odor emanates from the skin.
Thomas J. Connolly, a defense lawyer in Portland, said he believes that the combination of caffeine and alcohol in coffee brandy makes it worse than other liquors: "It's like an ideal food for crime."
"It keeps you awake, it keeps you going, it keeps you sexualized," said Connolly, who said he has heard a client explain, "I was drinking Allen's, and then I was in the blackie" -- blacked out.
Many officials in Maine don't agree. To their minds, there is nothing particularly sinister about the makeup of Allen's or any other kind of coffee brandy.
The only thing these drinks are, they say, is popular.
"If it wasn't Allen's, it would be something," said Steele, the emergency-room physician, who is also chief medical officer for a regional hospital chain. "Alcohol itself is the problem."