On the whiteboard above the desk that Jenny and Jonathan Bonchak share in the small, square office of Slingshot Coffee Company's headquarters near downtown Raleigh, a mantra written in lime-green ink reminds the couple to "rise up and greet the day with enthusiasm." Below the quote, the complete set of the brand's bottled libations stands on display: There's a squat cold-brew coffee and its concentrated twin, plus the lighter Cascara tea. And tall, dark and slim, like the mature older brother of the stubby canteens, is a rather new addition—a collaboration between Slingshot and Durham Distillery that they call Damn Fine Coffee Liqueur.
The bottle looks as if it might house a fancy olive oil, but the amber liquid pours out smooth and even, not in thick glugs. On sight alone, the liqueur could pass for coffee, except for the sweetish-sour smell of alcohol that wafts up before you take a sip.
Damn Fine goes down as easily as coffee, too. It tastes more like the morning beverage than the liqueur we've come to expect from the likes of Kahlúa or Baileys. It's lightly sweetened by orange-blossom honey and molasses.
"Most coffee liqueurs we've had are way too sweet, with a terrible viscosity," Jenny explains. "They're slimy, almost like—sorry to say it—mucus. We wanted this to be silky and sippable on its own, but also able to work as a mixer." (For ice cream, I'm told—mix it with ice cream.)
Many coffee liqueurs come with shelf-stabilizing agents that supply a milky consistency. They rely on coffee flavoring, not coffee, to manufacture a generic taste for mass consumption. For Damn Fine, the Bonchaks have chosen an organic bean from Honduras with notes of stonefruit—fleshy pulp that surrounds a central pit, like a peach or plum—and cacao. Add the local sweeteners, and each batch sports a subtle difference in flavor that changes with the season.
The coffee comes from Slingshot, which cold-brews 100 gallons every month to fulfill its distribution demands. But the rest of the operation occurs at Durham Distillery, a crafty enterprise run by another husband-wife team. Melissa and Lee Katrincic began making small-batch gin in a 230-liter copper still three years ago and expanded their lineup to include liqueurs in August. The coffee version has been more than a year in the making. The process entailed several late-night pasta dinners, which doubled as recipe-tasting sessions, before the couples settled on a formula.
They got it right. By itself, the liqueur's snappy sweetness calls to mind a candied citrus peel dipped in dark chocolate. With a splash of whole milk, the drink becomes a toothsome dessert. Add a dram to your weekend morning coffee, and "greeting the day with enthusiasm" should be pretty easy.
This article appeared in print with the headline "High and mighty"