I’m usually the first to trot out Reno’s unofficial motto of “We need the rain!” whenever anyone complains about the weather, but I’m ready for some hot summer days, too. Still, I know I’ll miss the clouds, so to make the most of a stormy afternoon, I went to Louis’ Basque Corner for a pick-me-up: a Winnemucca Coffee.
Most people would probably point to Irish coffee as the quintessential coffee cocktail, but with the exception of Ceol’s particular recipe, I find whiskey and coffee to be a fairly jarring mix. Winnemucca Coffee, as my bartender Craig Benson explained, is made with brandy and anise liqueur, called anisette.
“It’s one-and-a-half ounces of brandy, a half-ounce of anisette, coffee and lemon twist,” said Benson.
I had never tried Winnemucca Coffee before, although I’d seen a few Louis’ veterans order it occasionally. As he handed me my drink, I half-jokingly asked Benson if anyone ever got it with cream or sugar.
“Not really, nobody ever seems to need it,” he replied.
I took a skeptical sip, expecting the familiar burn of whiskey to accentuate the bitterness of pot-coffee. Instead, I was surprised to find a balanced, comforting and delicious alternative.
Brandy makes a tart and fruity addition to black coffee, and anise—which is the primary flavor associated with black licorice—adds an herbal quality that’s similar to strong black tea and menthol. Anisette, I found after trying it on its own, is also sweet and evens out both the burn and bitterness of the other ingredients. The citrus garnish gives it a little freshness, too.
I wanted to know more about Winnemucca Coffee’s origins. When it comes to Basque cocktails, people are most likely familiar with the iconic Picon Punch, which is celebrated all over Northern Nevada—although the drink originated in San Francisco. Winnemucca coffee, I was proud to learn, originated here in Nevada, at its namesake, the Winnemucca Hotel.
Before their deaths in 2013 and 2017, respectively, Lorraine and Louie Erreguible—the founders of Louis’ Basque Corner—did an interview for the Prater Way Oral History Project. In it, they mentioned that Winnemucca Coffee was first served by Miguel “Mike” Olano.
“Mike owned the hotel in Winnemucca and he’s the one who came up with that thing, and he called it “el completo”—that’s the coffee, anisette, brandy, and a cigar, “el completo,” Louis said to interviewer Imanol Murua. “He started that, and now all the Basque people start serving that.”
Lorraine also stated that Picon Punch is considered the before-dinner cocktail, which is consistent with the traditional Basque use of Amer Picon, while coffee is best for after a meal.
“Believe me, it’s the aperitif of the Basque hotel in this country, you know, and Winnemucca coffee is the digestif,” she said.
The Winnemucca Hotel was built in 1863. Basque immigrant Mike Olano and some partners purchased it in 1963. Olano died in 2007, and while the Winnemucca Hotel still stands, it apparently shuttered its doors a few years back. But Olano’s legacy still lives on at Louis’ and other Basque restaurants.
I left Louis’ with plans to keep some anisette at my house for future use; I also planned to convert my friends to this better caffeinated cocktail.