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A Warm Drink for the Cold Country

Bayside Coffee:  it sounds innocuous enough. When I first heard the term, I figured it referred to a Door County coffee shop I’d somehow never heard of, a sunny café that featured cheerful baristas serving hot coffee in thick mugs to content, relaxed patrons.

The servers of the Bayside Coffee are indeed cheerful and their patrons content. Other than that, though, my bright vision was pretty much wrong. First of all, the Bayside Coffee is not a place, but a drink.

“Make sure you have a designated driver,” a friend told me before I went to try my first one.

I informed her that this was a journalistic mission and that I only intended to drink one.

“Okay,” she said matter-of-factly. “Make sure you have a designated driver.”

I scoffed, but my friend’s caution turned out to be fitting. The Bayside Coffee packs a delicious punch unlike anything else I’ve experienced in the county. When I walked into the Bayside Tavern on Fish Creek’s Main Street and ordered a Bayside Coffee, a full-blown spectacle ensued.

Taking his materials from a wooden caddy designed specifically for making Bayside Coffees, Bayside server Bill Budelman started off my drink with a healthy dose of Gosling Black Seal 151, which looked appealing even before he lit it on fire. To this flaming foundation, he added a variety of spices, which sparked colorfully in the flame.

“Just wait for the nutmeg,” Budelman said slyly, and sure enough, the nutmeg produced an especially impressive spark display, inspiring a positive review from Baileys Harbor resident Emily Maher:  “Wow. That’s beautiful.”

Maintaining a flame all the while (a feat that requires the server to keep the glass spinning throughout the drink-making process), Budelman added Grand Marnier, Baileys, and Kahlua until my glass was about half full. Then he filled the other half with coffee, which, he explained, usually puts out the fire. In rare cases when the flame is not extinguished by the coffee, a generous serving of whipped cream on top usually does the trick.

“It’s the Bayside equivalent of a fish boil,” Budelman laughed, and the analogy seemed apt, especially given the nutmeg-induced “boilover” I’d witnessed moments before. And as soon as I had my first sip, I knew the Bayside Coffee, like the fish boil, would prove a delicious way to while away an evening.

Much like a fish boil, the Bayside Coffee boasts a dual sort of appeal, coupling the spectacle of its assembly with the great taste of its final product. The drink occupies a humble bottom corner on the back of the Bayside’s menu, so its fame spreads mostly through word of mouth, or through the very event of its preparation.

Bayside server Jason Rockwell says, “[The Bayside Coffee] is my favorite drink to make here. I like the flames. There have been nights when I’ve made about 12 in an evening. I put on the best show I can.”

The servers’ fondness for the Bayside Coffee is especially remarkable given the drink’s occasionally hazardous history. Server Molly Rockwell, for example, lit her arm on fire the first time she made a Bayside Coffee. When she accidentally spilled the liquor on her arm rather than in the glass, the flame followed its source up Rockwell’s arm.

“It didn’t hurt,” Molly remembers. “It was just burning the booze off. But I didn’t make another one for about five years.”

Most customers order the Bayside Coffee during the winter months, but the drink has proven popular year round since its inception 20 years ago, when then-bartender Ron MacDonald (who now owns the Northern Grill and serves a version of the drink there) was in Florida and saw a flaming tableside coffee drink served at a fancy restaurant in Naples.

At the time, MacDonald was on the lookout for “a good drink that would travel to Door County well.” He struck gold with the Bayside Coffee. “People had never seen that kind of thing in the winter in Door County,” he remembers.

Though the novelty of the Bayside Coffee may have worn off for locals, the drink’s relative old age has done nothing to dampen its popularity. Now selling for $9, the Bayside Coffee is as economical as it is tasty. Molly Costanzo, visiting Door County from Chicago, said of her first Bayside Coffee, “It’s such a good deal, considering that you get a great drink and a fun show at the same time. Seems like a fabulous way to spend a cold evening.”

Inventor Ron MacDonald agrees. “It’s a warm drink for the cold country.”