I’m not a big fan of chain coffee shops generally, and I don’t normally dole out free advice to companies charging more than $3 for a fancy cup of joe. But with the news last week that Starbucks is expanding its list of stores serving alcohol, I feel compelled. If they do this thing right, the experiment could change North American after-work culture for the better.
Forgive the cynicism, but I had feared critter plonk, bland lagers and Skinnygirl Margaritas. But the reality is that Starbucks appears to be getting this right so far.
Buried in some of the news reports was the fact that Starbucks already serves wine and beer at six stores in the Pacific Northwest region of the United States. I asked the company to tell me what’s on the menu. The answer was encouraging. Of the eight wines, six come from the west coast of the United States, from Washington’s Chateau Ste-Michelle Riesling to Louis Martini Cabernet Sauvignon from California’s Napa Valley. The other two wines are a prosecco (from Italy, as prosecco must be) and a malbec from Argentina. So it’s mostly a local focus, with thoughtful exceptions.
And among the five beers, there was one international mega-brand (Stella Artois), but the rest are from craft breweries. For instance, there’s Rogue Mocha Porter for those who get inspired by the aroma of coffee but fancy something with a different kind of kick.
I’m told the new, soon-to-arrive boozy Starbucks locations in Chicago, Southern California and Atlanta will have their own menus, featuring products made close to those regions.
So far, so great. But what could make drinking at Starbucks better?
Coffee chains have co-opted and homogenized aspects of Mediterranean (particularly Italian) coffee culture and jargon. If the local coffee shop is going to serve drinks, it ought to make 5 p.m. taste as good as it does in Milan or Nice.
They can start with aperitif wines of the kind that Italian and French drinkers consume between work and dinner in order to prime their appetites and take the edge off the day.
The French aperitif Lillet, formerly available only in the Blanc variety in this country, has recently become available in its Rouge version in Ontario. Its sweetness and oaky bite make it just the kind of drink I want before or after a coffee. As for vermouths, we may still be waiting to see great brands like Dolin and Carpano Antica Formula in Canada, but I’ve lately been digging the tonic-like Cinzano Rosso, finding I appreciate it more as my palate matures. I don’t know if North Americans could ever be persuaded to drink vermouth on the rocks like they do in the Mediterranean, but if anyone can make it fashionable in the tony suburbs of our continent, it’s Starbucks.
And while the company has eschewed spirits so far, introducing the deliciously bitter Aperol (11% alcohol) and Campari (23%) probably wouldn’t result in soccer moms going on a caffeine-and-booze-fuelled rampage. (I said probably: Don’t blame me if it happens.) And the portions can easily be controlled if the company is concerned about drinking and driving.
Finally, if your local coffee shop stocked all of the above, they could make a few very interesting drinks. Like Aperol spritzes. Or Americanos. I’m not talking about the coffee — there’s a cocktail called an Americano, too. If having two different kinds of Americanos makes ordering a drink a little complicated at Starbucks, that’s OK. Complicated ordering is kind of Starbucks’ thing.
AMERICANO (not the coffee kind)
• sweet vermouth, preferably Cinzano Rosso, 1½ oz or to taste
• equal amount Campari
• soda water
• orange slice for garnish
Method: To a highball glass filled halfway with ice, add vermouth and Campari. Top up with soda. Stir if you want a consistent flavour, otherwise the drink will start weak and get stronger — which is fine if you prefer it that way.
Use amounts inside brackets if your stomach requires more opening than usual
– 1½ oz. (2 oz.) Aperol
– 2 oz. (3 oz.) prosecco or other dry sparkling wine
– splash of soda to taste
Method: Combine ingredients in a wine or rocks glass with ice and serve with a slice of orange for garnish.
(NB: I wrote this as a Happy Hour column for the Post, but I didn’t like it enough to actually file it for print.)