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The Champagne of Maine

The top-selling spirit in Maine for more than two decades is a coffee-flavored brandy, something that could be straight out of early medicine texts. A search for the origins of a Maine staple, in the northern woods and waterfronts.

Nick Arciaga for The Morning News

Served straight, Allen’s Coffee Flavored Brandy smells like coffee. On the palate it starts saccharine sweet, then moves through coffee notes, and ends up somewhere sharper than a port. It’s boozy, and at 60 proof, tastes like it could get you drunk.

With milk and ice, it tastes like a melted coffee milkshake, the alcohol almost completely hidden. I could probably drink five of them without thinking about it. And that would be a bad idea.

It would be a bad idea, first, because that’s a lot of milk. And second, because it’s a lot of booze. At Sangillo’s Tavern in Portland, Maine, Call-me-Rocko laid it out this way: “I drank a fifth of Allen’s one night and I couldn’t breathe.” Then he went back to talking about the time he pissed on his dad from a third-story window “by accident.”

Portland (and the state beyond it) may have bars full of local taps; its brewers guild may be growing so fast that it actually needed to hire an executive director. And the state may even be moving past the micro-brew renaissance toward craft liquors made of nothing but Maine potatoes, but if there’s any drink that holds Maine’s heart, it’s Allen’s, a liquor made in Massachusetts.

In 2009, M.S. Walker Co., based in Somerville, Mass., saw Maine sales of its Allen’s Coffee Flavored Brandy peak at 1,065,108 bottles, falling not that far shy of the 1,318,301 they would have needed to match the state population. It’s been the top-selling spirit in the state for what is widely agreed to be more than 20 years. In point of fact, four of the top ten spots in the ranking of the state’s liquor sales go to Allen’s, because each bottle size is counted separately.

This kind of market dominance is unprecedented. M.S. Walker Vice President Gary Shaw says, “I believe it’s unique in the country.” But at the same time, it’s pretty difficult to explain. Rum and vodka, broadly speaking, have the highest sales nationally. Why do Mainers show such passion for coffee-flavored booze?

 

In Biddeford, a mill town still rough around the edges, with narrow streets sloping down to the Saco River, I put the question to Krystal Delana, who was tending bar at Pop’s Tavern (where beer, it turned out, was the only choice). Krystal, a woman about my own age, called me “hon’” when she asked what I wanted to drink and “this kid” when another patron asked what we were talking about. But she was an authority on Allen’s; it was her drink, she said, from age 22 to age 26, and she’d also served plenty when she was tending at Coasters, a karaoke bar and dance club just down the road.

“A lot of the fishermen would use it as part of the their coffee. Maybe to kind of warm ‘em up from the inside as well as the outside.”

“I love coffee milk,” Delana told me. “That’s what got me hooked on it. And it didn’t give me a hangover.” So why did her relationship with Allen’s end at 26? “It started giving me hangovers.”

Allen’s is named for Leo Allen, who joined his father-in-law’s business soon after M.S. Walker was founded and prohibition repealed. Production of Allen’s started in the late ’60s, and the company began distributing it in Maine shortly thereafter. At that time, says Shaw, it was mostly sold Downeast, where “a lot of the fishermen would use it as part of the their coffee, just add a little Allen’s coffee brandy maybe to kind of warm ‘em up from the inside as well as the outside.”

Allen’s has what Shaw describes as a “true coffee flavor,” and presumably this means that it wouldn’t adulterate a thermos of coffee with unfamiliar tastes. It was also, he suggests, sold as a value proposition, undercutting the market for coffee liqueurs like Kahlúa, a rum-based Mexican brand.

Delana offered this explanation, too: “It was always in the well. So it was cheap, right? I could sit and have four or five drinks, and it would only cost 30 bucks.”

 

Brandy has served as a base alcohol for centuries. According to Don Lindgren, co-owner of Rabelais Books, a Biddeford bookseller specializing in food and drink titles, “You have to think of brandy as having a lot of different roles, including a medicinal role in the household. It was a very straightforward alcohol base that could be used for lots of things, so it was used for cooking, and used for drinking. But it’s also used as a preservative in a way. So the flavors of the year could be incorporated by flavoring brandies.” Rabelias has many thousands of cookbooks new and rare, including a 200-year-old volume of German brandy recipes. I checked, but coffee brandy wasn’t mentioned, suggesting that it is at least newer than the book.

So brandy has long been sipped for its medicinal qualities, and it would certainly have been familiar as a daily beverage among fishermen in 1970s Maine, but it was a cocktail that elevated Allen’s to its current status. Credit for the Sombrero (generally made with Kahlúa, and first referenced in 1973) goes to Curtis Bryan, a Texas bartender, who was reportedly bemused by the drink’s popularity “in Boston of all places.” Depending on the mixer, a Sombrero runs one part coffee spirit to one or two parts dairy. It’s served with ice in a tall glass or a short one.

According to Shaw, the Sombrero was what brought Allen’s off the fishing boat and into the bar. Among Mainers, the Massachusetts coffee brandy had been trading the top spot with Bacardi for years, with brandy a winter favorite and rum a summer, but the new cocktail recipe catapulted it to popularity in all seasons. There are other cocktails, to be sure, that can be made with Allen’s: from Coffee Alexanders to a Brave Bull. Or you can drink it on the rocks. But in Maine, when you say Allen’s, the milk is pretty much implied.

The Sombrero is a drink of the old school, and it’s hard to say why it didn’t go the way of Milk Punch. Except that Maine is often an old school kind of place.

This, it’s worth pointing out, keeps well with the history of brandy consumption: David Wondrich, author of Imbibe! and Punch, writes in the latter that adding milk to brandy punches dates back to the 17th century. In a piece for Esquire, he wrote, “Milk Punch is one of the more ancient medications in the pharmacopoeia. They drank it in colonial times, they drank it in Boston, they drank it on the Mississippi riverboats, they drank it just about everywhere, right on through the Second World War. After that, America seems to have lost the taste.”

The Sombrero then, is a drink of the old school, and it’s hard to say why it didn’t go the way of Milk Punch. Except that Maine is often an old school kind of place.

 

Dr. Marcia Pelchat, a sensory scientist who studies human food acceptance at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, says that once a drink gains traction it tends to stick around.

“Basically what we know in the psychology of food business is that people like what they’re familiar with,” she told me. “One of the reasons is that if you’re familiar with it, you get these positive learned associations. Once something becomes popular in a particular part of the country, people have experience with it, they learn to like it, and it just gets perpetuated. And you don’t need any other explanation.”

Sian Evans, a Belfast-based filmmaker in the process of creating a documentary about drinking in Maine, suggests it may be this sense of history that has kept Allen’s a best seller in the state. “It’s a very conservative label, graphically,” she said. “I mean, it hasn’t changed one iota in an eon. Mainers are very conservative people, and I think this is an authentication of a sort for buyers. Not to mention that the pattern of consumption is generations old, so there’s this idea that ‘my father and mother drank it, too.’”

But even without history, says Pelchat, “Allen’s has a lot going for it. It’s cheap, it’s got sugar, it’s got alcohol. It may be comforting, the milk part … and you’ve got a bunch of people who already like coffee, and like coffee with milk.”

And it’s the coffee, more than history or the milk, that Sandra Oliver, author of Saltwater Foodways and Maine Home Cooking, argues is most critical for Mainers. “People who like coffee—and most people around here do, the roadsides are littered with empty coffee cups, coffee is a popular flavor—people like the caffeine in it.”

The caffeine question came up a few years ago, when the national press discovered Four Loko, a Chicago-made line of caffeinated alcoholic beverages initially marketed as energy drinks. Political pressure to ban caffeinated alcohol mounted, the FDA sent out a warning, and since Allen’s also contains caffeine some writers wondered whether the old standard might get banned too. At one point MSNBC personality Rachel Maddow took out a bottle of Allen’s on her show to test for caffeine, and because its flavor comes from coffee extract (created in a “proprietary two-step process”), Allen’s registered as caffeinated, but certainly nowhere near the 12 percent of the energy drinks. Michael Herndon, a spokesman for the FDA, told the New York Times that his agency was looking at the “intentional addition of caffeine to alcoholic beverages,” and just like that, Allen’s was safe.

 

People talk about the caffeine giving them the ability to stay up all night drinking, but it’s not just that, says Oliver: “[Allen’s is also] wicked sweet, so if you’ve got a sweet tooth (which a lot of Mainers do) it satisfies that. Girls like to drink it.”

To keep the top spot on the state’s liquor sales table, Allen’s needs broad appeal—but general agreement suggests consumption certainly skews down gendered lines. This is reflected in, among other things, the great number of nicknames avowing the drink’s effects, from “Liquid Leg Spreader” to “Hancock County Panty Remover.” When Delana told the crowd at Pop’s Tavern what I was doing, patrons, un-prompted, started shouting their favorites, from the local “Biddeford Martini” to the slightly more sinister “Trailer Park Love Potion.”

To keep the top spot on the state’s liquor sales table, Allen’s needs broad appeal—but general agreement suggests consumption certainly skews down gendered lines.

Frequent drinkers have been dubbed “Brandy Queen”—an honorific, but certainly a mixed one.

Michael Sanders, a Maine-based food writer and author of Drinking in Maine (a collection of Maine cocktails that does not include the Sombrero), points to the gendered consumption of Allen’s as a serious problem:

“In Maine, it was a ladies drink. If you talk to people about how they lost their virginity, up here in a certain social class, lots of times that name comes up. And I thought twice was a coincidence, three times was funny, and after that…. This is obviously the teen drink. You know, get her drunk and blah blah blah.”

If Allen’s is the drink of choice among young drinkers, says Pelchat, it makes sense. “I would say [mixing it with milk] would cover up all the negatives. Young drinkers in other parts of the country have similar types of mixed drinks, or alcohol mixed with juice or sweet soda, that’s sort of a gateway drug, if you will,” she said.

Shaw didn’t seem surprised when I asked about this, but pointed to M.S. Walker’s sales as proof that Allen’s was a product not just for young drinkers. “We do almost 11 percent of all the alcohol sold in the state; that’s impossible to be just with young drinkers. If you look at our demographics, it’s really across the board.”

But he also acknowledged some of the issues. “Again,” he said, “because of the volume we do, we provide a tremendous amount of revenue to the state of Maine, but any of the associated social issues with alcoholic beverage, we’re part of that equation also. “

It is often rumored that Allen’s occupies a place of infamy in the police blotters of Maine. And it is also suggested as a drink of choice for late-night driving. Many are the stories of “making a thermos up of White Russians or something like that,” says Oliver, “and going out and driving around. Looking to see if you find some deer somewhere.”

Shaw, again, points to anecdote as just that. On the subject of drunk driving he suggested, “I think the facts bear out that most people don’t do that because of the volume that we sell. The limited amount of incidences would bear out that that doesn’t seem to have any factual basis. We feel that we have a moderate product that a vast majority of our consumers use responsibly.”

Stephen McCausland, an information officer with the Maine State Police, said there is no database against which to check the theory, but offered the opinion that any myths about Allen’s were nothing more than that. “Even though it’s the no. 1-selling booze in the state, and has been for years, anecdotally I don’t think it appears in any more police reports than Budweiser or strawberry wine,” he said.

And Shaw reminded me that at 60 proof, Allen’s is much milder than a vodka or gin. Mixed with milk it’s even milder, but this, of course, also makes it easier to drink.

 

In all this, the question of Allen’s current popularity in Maine becomes no great mystery. But the fact that it’s only Maine—that seems curious.

Shaw says it’s not. Sales throughout New England are good, and this, he says, is due to the New England preference for coffee flavoring. Certainly, Rhode Islanders are known for their love of coffee milk (the state drink since 1993). And it’s worth pointing out too that at Dunkin’ Donuts (founded, mind you, in Quincy, Mass.), a regular coffee is one with milk and sugar. According to Euromonitor International, a market-research firm that makes yearly reports about the state of the beverage industry, “Per capita coffee consumption in the Northeast is nearly 12 percent higher than the national average.”

Perhaps more importantly, Allen’s isn’t on the national market because it is produced by a company that is essentially regional in scope. M.S. Walker is what Kristen Bieler, writing for Beverage Media, called “an anomaly; a hold-out from a time when the American landscape was littered with bottling operations.”

If M.S. Walker is anomalous, so, too, is Allen’s, and it’s a quirk in which people can take pride. New brands, like the Gelato Fiasco of Brunswick and the Holy Donut of Portland, have flagship products based around Allen’s—a symbol of local roots and the love of sweet, biting coffee. It is at once a recognition of history and a perversion of tradition.

But traditions do fade. And though Allen’s has remained Maine’s top liquor since peaking in 2009, and still holds a major piece of the market, sales have declined every year since then, falling to 941,000 in 2012. Mr. Boston, part of the New Orleans-based liquor company Sazerac, has a coffee brandy that’s taken some of the market, but it might be more a question of demographics. More than one person told me that Allen’s was not only a women’s drink, but an older women’s drink. As Maine’s population ages dramatically, I wonder if that will remain true, or if the rule really should have been that Allen’s is a drink of a certain generation of women.

I went looking to drink Allen’s with regular drinkers recently, first in Portland where I met Call-me-Rocko, and then in Biddeford, where Delana poured me a Bud Light instead. I went to Sangillo’s on Sombero Sunday, but didn’t find anyone else drinking one. Christine, behind the bar, told me I really needed to go north, that I wouldn’t find many Allen’s drinkers in southern Maine, and she was right.

But then, Maine is known for its moose, too, and there aren’t many of those around Portland, either. There seems little chance that Allen’s will lose its cultural relevancy, but as the south encroaches, as Maine becomes more like the rest of the country, I could see Allen’s following the moose up to the woods, to find a place where it can get away from it all. Luckily, for those of us who live here and, I suppose, for M.S. Walker, plenty of the state still fits that description.

Martin Connelly is a writer, photographer, and co-founder of the Little Red Cup Tea Company. He lives in Portland, Maine. More by Martin Connelly