There was a moment over Christmas when I thought I was hallucinating. It was as if I’d stumbled across a hairy mammoth in St James’s Park. I was presented with an Irish coffee. You know, the proto-Bailey’s Irish Cream - coffee, whiskey, sugar with whipped cream floating on top. It looks like a Guinness but doesn’t taste like Guinness.
There’s some debate as to when, how and by whom it came to be invented (some dispute as to whether it was first created in Ireland at all, but in America), but it became the sophisticated way of relaxing at the end of dinner. It first put in an appearance in the 1950s and became really quite fashionable by the 1980s, taking over from Turkish coffee as the aspirational post-prandial coffee drink, probably on account of its alcohol content. Turkish coffee had none.
I’ve drunk a few Irish coffees in my time, but none for the last thirty years. I’d forgotten: a) just how seductive it is - hot, cool, sweet, punchy, creamy, intense, austere, intoxicating; and b) how versatile a vehicle coffee is for all manner of cheering drinks. There’s Bailey’s, naturally, and Tia Maria (when was the last time anyone drank that?) and Kahlúa, and no doubt other coffee liqueurs too.
Then there are coffee-based cocktails. I have particularly happy memories of the Espresso Martinis mixed by the Lavazza team at the launch party for my book Summer in the Islands at Fortnum & Mason’s a year or so back. Beyond Espresso Martinis lie Black Russians, Mudslides, Brown Cows, Dark & Stormys and Nigella’s Tiramisinis, all of which I still have to make the acquaintance.
But, by far and away my favourite coffee-and-alcohol combo is Ponce alla Livornese, also appropriately known as Torpedine or Bomba. I first made the acquaintance of this admirable tipple at the beginning of my epic six-month trip around the Italian islands in 2014. A combination of coffee and digestif, it consists of one part espresso to one part rum with a strip of lemon peel to infuse it. According to local legend, it came about when a Saracen felucca arrived in the port stacked with sacks of coffee and barrels of rum. This seems improbable to me, not least because the Saracens were Muslims and therefore not given to trading in alcohol.
Whatever the real provenance, it makes for a beguiling and elegant drink to sharpen the senses, ease away an afternoon or shoehorn you into the night.
Matthew Fort is a renowned food writer and critic. He was a judge on the BBC’s Great British Menu for 15 years and was The Guardian’s food and drink editor for ten years. His great love affair with Italian gastronomy and culture has inspired three out of four of his books.