A conversation with distiller Dave Smith about his new boozy brew
Since its release a couple of months ago, I've been savoring Firelit Spirits' one-of-a-kind coffee liqueur, featuring none other than Blue Bottle Coffee. Starting off with 1,800 bottles (which are just about gone, by the way), founding partners, Jeff Kessinger and St. George Spirits distiller Dave Smith have created a coffee liqueur that retains all the nuance and glory of fine coffee. It is robust with unaged brandy, Madagascar vanilla beans and just enough cane sugar to provide balance, rather than cloying sweetness. With a strong caffeinated kick and at a bracing 60 proof, this is coffee with benefits.
I had the privilege of chatting with Jeff Kessinger and Dave Smith, both gracious guys with a deep knowledge and passion for spirits, to discuss the story behind Firelit's creation. The recipe and concept are Kessinger's, and his story has been covered in various publications.
In speaking with Smith about what prompted the great St. George to embrace this project, my suspicion that the distillery receives numerous pitches for products or use of the facilities was correct. What made them take a longer look at Kessinger's recipe? As he was an old friend of St. George's, they decided to experiment with a trial batch, believing so much in what they initially produced that Smith took on distilling responsibilities. Smith and Kessinger shared a vision for making a unique, natural tasting (read: not sticky-sweet) coffee liqueur. Smith explored recipes himself over the years, even a chicory coffee liqueur after a New Orleans' trip. Along with James Freeman of Blue Bottle, Smith and Kessinger tested a slew of iterations of the liqueur with every shade of coffee bean, achieving a consensus on the final product for initial bottling. Dave acknowledges that many spirits come out of what is more or less a "dare", the risk becoming greater the more unexplored the liqueur style. "It's not difficult to make a good product", Smith says, "but it's very difficult to make a great product."
Understandably, Smith calls Firelit a product he's "incredibly proud of", expressing the unique thumbprint of each person involved, which is, in fact, a common goal at St. George. One of the most exciting aspects of Firelit is that it will be produced with different coffee beans and brands. Just as coffee beans reflect the terroir and climate of a region in any given year, Firelit will evolve and reincarnate, allowing varying coffees to take center stage, even as the base profile remains the same. This is a welcome new liqueur for any spirits (and coffee) lover... and also another locally made treasure.
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