The Revolver, as a cocktail, is a star. The world may not fully know it yet—it’s indisputably a modern classic, though it is curiously absent from most cocktail books—but that doesn’t matter. It’s not about popularity or external validation. True star power comes from within.
To become a classic, a cocktail needs certain things. It needs first to be reproducible, and at a dead-simple three ingredients—bourbon, coffee liqueur and orange bitters—the Revolver is certainly that. Classics also need to be delicious, obviously, and they need to be lucky and have a great name—the Revolver hit all of those marks. But there’s something else, too, something it does uncommonly well, which is its almost magical ability to taste good regardless of specific ingredients or circumstance.
The revolver was invented in 2004 by a bartender named Jon Santer in San Francisco. At the time, the few people who were doing so-called “mixology” on the West Coast tended to lean on its year-round access to wonderful produce, and so the style was all about muddled fresh sorrel and satsuma mandarin juice and things like that. The Revolver, obviously, is the opposite of this, an active rejection of them. “I wanted to create a drink from readily available materials,” Santer recounted, “that anyone with a little bit of skill could make.”
Anyone indeed. If a cocktail is going to catch on, another trait that’s absolutely vital but rarely discussed is that it needs to be durable. It’s going to be mixed at a thousand different bars by a thousand different bartenders in possession of wildly different levels of skill, and so it must be able to absorb various indigenous insults and still be delicious. If the Revolver fell apart in over-dilution or was good only with this one particular roast of coffee or one particular type of bourbon, you’d never have heard of it.
No, what makes the Revolver special, and what earns it a place among the best cocktails in the neo-classic pantheon, is that the Revolver is always good. It’s good with a great coffee liqueur, but it’s also good with a middling one. It’s good with spicy bourbon and with sweet bourbon and also with crappy bourbon, good across dilutions and sweetness levels and style of ice. It’s good both up and down. It’s just a good drink. It really is remarkable, the opposite of anodyne but still a crowd pleaser, the kind of drink you’d serve at a wedding if the couple wanted a small cocktail list that seemed exciting and “craft” but still needed to appeal to everyone.
The revolver shines in whatever circumstances it finds itself in. It is, in other words, a star.
Add all the ingredients to a rocks glass over a large piece of ice and stir. Garnish with a flamed orange peel or a regular orange peel.
NOTES ON INGREDIENTS
Bourbon: The Revolver was invented specifically for Bulleit Bourbon, a then-new product that Santer had in surplus (the Bulleit is in the Revolver, yes yes). That works great. Also great would be literally any bourbon you’ve got. About 99 percent of the Revolvers I make are at a bar for customers, and our cocktail bourbon is Evan Williams Black Label, which is $11 per bottle and also tastes great. If I had my choice, I think I’d do the Elijah Craig Small Batch, same distillery as Evan Williams but a little older, higher proof and better.
Coffee liqueur: Usually, when you test products side-by-side as different from each other as coffee liqueurs can be, a clear winner emerges. Not so here. It was hard to choose. Kahlua, the biggest and most popular is also the least coffee-forward, but is still nice as a revolver, the coffee a warm echo. Borghetti has that over-roasted Italian thing but is still delicious here. For my recommendation, just because it’s great and doesn’t get praised enough, is the St. George NOLA Coffee Liqueur from Alameda, Calif., but honestly you can use any coffee liqueur you like.
Orange Bitters: While I generally don’t enjoy the flavors of orange with coffee, bourbon makes the introductions and these two harmonize perfectly. As for brands, we run into the old familiar problem of there not being any single brand of orange bitters that stands above the others, but in this drink, mercifully, it doesn’t matter much, use whatever you can get. If you want more information, we write more in depth about it here.
Garnish: Santer garnished this with a flamed orange peel, which goes like this. Using a knife or peeler, cut a disk of peel off an orange, about the size of a half-dollar and avoiding any of the orange’s flesh, just pith and peel. Strike a match or lighter, and hold it right above the surface of the drink. Take the peel between your fingers, orange side out, in front of a flame, and pinch. The oils in the peel will express out and the fire will ignite them, giving the cocktail a slightly burnt orange aroma.
It’s a neat trick, and never fails to impress in a dark bar. That being said, if all that sounds like too much work for you, you could use a regular, unflamed orange peel, and the cocktail will still taste great.