Rhode Island Coffee Milk

by Ari Weinzweig

If you’re driven by trivia, you’ll want to know that this is the OFFICIAL drink of the state of Rhode Island. If you’re driven by flavor, you’ll just want to know that it tastes really good. If you’re driven by personal stories, you’ll want to know that coffee milk was invented by the uncle of Ann Arbor’s own Jan Longone, the woman behind the world class culinary collection housed at the Clements Library.

Coffee milk officially became the state drink of Rhode Island in 1993, but it’s been around since the 1930s. While it’s unlikely that no one other than Rhode Islanders have mixed cold milk, coffee and sugar, for whatever reasons the good people of the nation’s smallest state have latched on to it with a love and affection that English people have for tea. The first coffee syrup available for retail sale was a brand called Eclipse, which debuted in 1938 and became known for the slogan, “You’ll smack your lips when it’s Eclipse.” The story behind the official story came up when I met with Jan to prepare for the Symposium. I mentioned when folks arrived at the Roadhouse for Sunday brunch, we could start them with a taste of Rhode Island coffee milk and a bit of background on this piece of American culinary history. Jan immediately lit up and said, “You know, my uncle actually invented that.” I have no reason to doubt that he did. As a very careful and detail-oriented historian, Jan doesn’t spin stories out of hand. She closed her eyes, and said, “I can still taste it.” Jan’s Uncle Meyer was a Russian Jewish immigrant who loved to tinker with things. He seemingly took the Rhode Island love for strong, sweet coffee and turned it into a cold drink. We don’t know his exact recipe for the coffee syrup which is the basis of the drink. But apparently he shared it with someone in the interest of getting it produced and patented and the man, whose name we no longer know, absconded with it instead. Uncle Meyer was left to tinker with other things, Rhode Island got coffee milk and here we are all in Ann Arbor today, home to his niece and her world-renowned culinary collection at the Clements Library. And now, here we are, more than likely the most western stronghold of Rhode Island coffee milk.

Bee Mayhew, former Roadshow manager, is the one who had the great idea to get this old East Coast classic going here. Bee’s also the one who noted that really good coffee milk is what the frappucino now sold in every gas station should probably be about. She’s spent months testing and tasting different versions of homemade coffee syrup (despite the cute slogan above, the commercial versions are loaded with stuff that doesn’t need to be in there) using the Roadhouse Joe from Zingerman’s Coffee Company as the base. We mix the syrup with milk and cream from Calder Dairy (over in Carleton, same stuff we use at the Creamery to make the cream cheese).

When do you drink coffee milk? Anytime and anyplace. If you’re not into hot beverages, it’s a great way to get the day going. Excellent opportunity to cool off in the summer heat. Be a good way to end a meal along with chocolate chunk cookie from the Bakehouse. Pull up to the Roadshow anytime and ask for a taste or just order one and drink a cool toast to Uncle Meyer and a Rhode Island classic.

Brilliantly Crafted Bourbons

by Ari Weinzweig

You may ask yourself “Why is there so much bourbon at the RH?” The answer is quite simple. Bourbon is the only great native spirit to the US. By law, bourbon whiskey has to be distilled from a base of at least 51% corn, along with a blend of barley, rye and/or wheat. The flavor will change from one brand to the next, depending on the grain blend being used. And all bourbon must, by law, come from Kentucky.

Another imperative part of great bourbon production is the water used. The iron-free, limestone heavy water of the region gets the credit for some of Bourbon’s unique flavor. (The water is said to contribute to the quality of the county’s horses as well, building strong bones.) Each bourbon maker also adds their own special strains of yeast, which contribute to the flavor. (Most keep their yeast formulas top secret.) The best bourbons are redolent of vanilla and caramel, with a touch of smokiness and subtle hints of the wood in which the whiskey was aged.

The reason that Kentucky is so ideal for making bourbon is the affect that the seasons have on aging of the liquor. Kentucky has very distinct seasons, which is the key to the maturation process. As the bourbon spends it’s time in the barrels it penetrates the pores of the wood. During the summer months, when the air is hot, the barrels expand; acting like a sponge this sucks the bourbon into the wood and imparts more flavor and color. In contrast the cold of the winter months causes the pores of the wood to contract thus forcing the spirit back out of the wood. As this continues the wood adds more and more to the finished product.

As with many fine spirits, mainly scotch and whiskeys, there are blends and single barrels. Single-barrel bourbons are essentially the grand crus of American whiskey. Most bourbons are blended from a series of barrels to get a balanced and uniform flavor. Single-barrel bourbons can be compared to estate wines, farmhouse cheeses, single origin coffees, etc. While still from a single distillery, “blended” Bourbons come from a series of different barrels—small-batch bourbons blend from roughly 20 barrels; big brands might use over 200.

All in all we love bourbon, it’s great before a meal, with a meal, or as an after dinner treat. We also have a hand full of delicious classic, and not so classic cocktails, made with this greatest of American spirits.