American Classics: Coffee Cabinets

Alexandra Penfold

When is a coffee shake not a coffee shake? When it's from Rhode Island and it's known to locals as a "coffee cabinet." Rhode Islanders take their coffee/dairy beverages seriously; coffee milk was named the state drink in 1993. So it's no surprise that the Ocean State is home to a mean coffee milkshake.

The definitive origins of the name "coffee cabinet" may be lost to history. Some stories claim that it's because the druggists who prepared these drinks kept their blenders (and/or coffee syrup) in cabinets behind the counter. One thing is for certain, however: you need both coffee syrup AND coffee ice cream to make a true coffee cabinet. Newport Creamery is one of the most famous spots in the state to get your fix. There it's known as an Awful Awful® for "Awful Big" and "Awful Good."

Rhode Islanders tend to favor old time local coffee syrups like Autocrat or Eclipse, while relative newcomer Morning Glory was the winner in a Serious Eats taste test back in 2010. Outside of Rhode Island it can be hard to find coffee syrup at the store, and many brands are loaded with high fructose corn syrup. Fortunately, making your own coffee syrup at home is simple, fun, and as a bonus, it allows you to use your favorite roast or blend sans additives or funny business, just pure coffee goodness.

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