After several years as a sales rep for Bock Spirits, where he helped to introduce Hangar One vodka, Jeff Kessinger decided to branch out and produce his own spirit for the first time, as a gift for friends at the holidays. His wife suggested that he try out her family's coffee liqueur recipe, but when Kessinger found out that the brew's backbone was instant coffee, he knew he could do better. So he did what most caffeine-lovers in the Bay Area do when they need a fix: he headed to Blue Bottle.
Nearly three years after his initial meeting with Blue Bottle's James Freeman, Kessinger is finally releasing his first commercial batch of coffee liqueur, under the brand name Firelit. A collaboration with Dave Smith of St. George Spirits in Alameda, the brew is made from a mixture of Blue Bottle's Yemen single-origin coffee, unaged chardonnay brandy, brandy distilled from coffee grounds, and whole vanilla beans. The result tastes more like your handcrafted morning cup of joe than a shot of Kahlua. Firelit's formula clocks in at 8% sugar, less than half of Kahlua's, and packs more of an alcoholic kick (it's 60 proof). While it doesn't make for much of a White Russian (adding vodka makes the drink taste too alcoholic), it's heavenly consumed neat, or shaken and strained with a little milk.
A dedicated local, Kessinger wanted to make a product that, by nature, was limited to the Bay Area. "I liked how you could only get Fat Tire [beer] in Colorado," he says. "Now, of course, you can drink it everywhere, but it just tastes better there." The limited size of Blue Bottle's operations-- the 400 pounds of coffee required to produce the first batch of Firelit was a tall order for the company-- will keep the product primarily local, Kessinger says. While he loves Blue Bottle's coffee, he also says he's not planning on sticking only to their beans: future versions of Firelit may use coffee from Four Barrel and other top local roasters. "Distilling the coffee really magnifies the uniqueness of the individual beans," he noted. "I think it could be an educational thing that helps people to understand different coffees better."
With an attractive brown-paper label designed by friend Tyler Warrender (a creative director who met Kessinger busing tables at the Old Spaghetti Factory in their teenage years), the Firelit bottle is easy to pick out. It can be seen behind some of the city's best bars, including Nopa, Absinthe, Town Hall, Georges, and the upcoming Public House. (While Kessinger admits to not being much of a mixologist himself, he particularly enjoyed a martini made by Nopa's Neyah White, which combined Firelit with grapefruit juice.) A 750 ml bottle retails for about $50, and can be found at Cask, The Jug Shop, K&L Wines, and Swirl on Castro, as well as the St. George tasting room.
As for Kessinger's wife, she's getting used to a new family recipe. "For a while there, I thought my wife was going to leave me if she heard me talk about coffee liqueur one more time," Kessinger says, laughing. "Now that it's here, though, she's really excited about it."