Close your eyes and picture in your mind early spring in upstate Maine, just outside of Aroostook County. The trees are still bare, and snow still covers much of the ground. But little by little, pockets of ice have thawed away to reveal the state’s infamous Lilies of the Tundra poking through, rising up toward the sun. But these lilies aren’t flowers. These are instead empty bottles of Allen’s Coffee Flavored Brandy that were tossed across the state during the winter months, maybe during fishing trips or snowshoeing expeditions. After hibernating for a few months beneath the snowpack, the lilies are in bloom.
It sounds crazy, but it happens every year in Maine, according to husband and wife authors and restaurateurs Andrew and Briana Volk. The bottles are almost universally Allen’s, though they may be paired with waterlogged cartons of milk. Allen’s, unheard of across much of the rest of the country, is lovingly called “the champagne of Maine” by residents in the 23rd state to join the union.
Just how popular is Allen’s Coffee Flavored Brandy in Maine? In 2017, more bottles of Allen’s were sold than of Jack Daniel’s, Jim Beam and Evan Williams, combined. And it’s not just whiskey that is trumped by Allen’s. There’s no rum brand, no gin, not even a vodka that puts up the kind of numbers in Maine that Allen’s does. Maine, a state of just 1.3 Million people – about the same as that of Dallas, TX – consumes $10 Million in Allen’s brandy each year, usually in the form of 1.75 liter handles. One in every seven bottles of liquor sold in the state is a handle of Allen’s.
Mainers drink four times as much Allen’s as they do of the state’s second best-selling booze, Orloff Vodka – which, probably not coincidentally, is often paired with Allen’s in many of the state’s most popular cocktails. Loose ratios of Allen’s, Orloff and milk are poured together in bars and homes by professional and amateur bartenders alike to come up with cocktails like the Toffeetini, Jackman Martini, Allen’s Affogato, Gorilla Milk, Espresso Punch, Sombrero and Fat Ass in a Glass.
In truth, all those cocktails are pretty much the same thing: a White Russian. An Allen’s White Russian. Kahlua, the coffee flavored liqueur that the rest of the country uses in their White Russians (It’s the 6th best-selling liquor in the U.S.), is just a blip on the radar in Maine, coming in at 82 on the list of the state’s 100 top-selling brands.
The funny thing about this hometown hero though, is that it’s not actually even from Maine. Allen’s was first sold as a medicinal product by the M.S. Walker pharmaceutical company of Boston in the elixir- and oil-mad era of the 1920s. At the time, it was 70 proof – though it has since been lowered to 60 proof (Kahlua, by comparison, is a measly 40 proof) – and it joined an already released blackberry flavor. A third attempt at a pre-made banana flavored cocktail was abandoned after a brief run by the company. Today, M.S. Walker still produces Allen’s from their production facility in Somerville, Massachusetts.
The company itself remains unsure how its signature beverage came to be almost entirely consumed by their neighbors to the north, but points to old stories about lobstermen and fishermen off the country’s northernmost coast relying on swigs from inexpensive bottles of Allen’s to warm them up inside when out at sea. Maybe because the idea of a boat full of gruff lobstermen buzzed up on caffeine and booze for months on end is kind of charming, everyone seems to just let the anecdote stand as historical fact.
But that combination of uppers from caffeine and downers from booze nearly killed off Maine’s favorite brew. Remember Four Loko? Sparks? Or any of the countless other malt liquor brands that exploded in popularity thanks to their accuity-shifting combination of caffeine, alcohol and carbonation, all housed together within a Red Bull or Monster energy drink-esque can? After a bombshell report by The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 2010 found that 31% of 12- to 17-year-olds were drinking the boozy energy drinks, the US Food and Drug Administration warned companies to stop mixing caffeine and alcohol. More than 30 products were pulled from stores following statewide bans that occupied morning news shows for weeks. For a moment, it seemed as if Allen’s would too be put out to pasture – or more likely, tundra. But M.S. Walker’s legal team was able to convince the FDA that Allen’s contains comparably far less caffeine than the energy drinks being targeted. The champagne of Maine was safe.
But not everyone is happy about it. Allen’s has been called “the drug of choice” for Maine’s criminals. In 1997, reporter Barbara Walsh wrote, “Empty brandy bottles are found at murder scenes, fatal fires, drunken-driving crashes, and homes where domestic violence happens.” Maine police note that people can often be seen walking down central and northern Maine streets carrying caramel colored jugs of milk, sipping as they go.
Protein and lactose-heavy milk is thought to slow the body’s analysis of its own blood alcohol content, allowing Mainers to drink greater amounts of their chosen drink for longer periods of time. In rural Maine – the majority of the state – the bottles are often discarded in the woods. There the lilies of the tundra wait, buried under the snow, for the timber industry’s log-hauling tractors to discover them once springtime has arrived.