Coffee Milk - Rhode Island Coffee Milk - Coffee Cabinet Recipe
History and Recipe

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There is a lot more to Rhode Island than just being the smallest state in our nation.

Rhode Island Coffee Cream, Coffee Cabinet

Certain foods have become statewide traditions and part of the state’s history. For example, Rhode Island is famous for Coffee Milk and Coffee Cabinet. It is said that if you travel more than 10 miles from Rhode island, people will not know what this drink is. If you are from Rhode Island and live somewhere else, you crave it!

Coffee Milk (kaw-fee milk)A lot like chocolate milk but with coffee-flavored syrup. It is milk with sweet coffee syrup added (two tablespoons of coffee syrup to 8 ounces of milk). The drink is served either by the glass or the half-pint (in a waxed-cardboard carton). Rhode Island is the only place in the world where you can get this drink. Coffee milk may have its origin with Italian immigrants in Rhode Island. According to Nancy Verde Barr, author of the cookbook We Called It Macaroni: An American Heritage of Southern Italian Cooking: "In Italy they often made a bitter coffee with grain. The brew was then heavily sweetened. The children drank what the parents did. The tradition of sweetening continued here…"

1930s - Coffee milk was introduced to Rhode Island sometime in the early 1930’s. It came about from creative diner and drugstore operators trying to attract new customers with creative drinks. One of these operators, which is lost in history, sweetened leftover coffee grounds with milk and sugar. This created a molasses-like extract that became popular. Coffee milk became an favorite among Rhode Islanders and created a demand for this coffee syrup.

1932 - The Silmo Packing Company of New Bedford, Massachusetts, began marketing a more refined version called "coffee syrup," under the Silmo name.

Eclipse Syrup

Autocrat Syrup

Eclipse Coffee Syrup

Autocrat Coffee Syrup

- Eclipse of Warwick began marketing a more refined version of what was being made and called it "coffee syrup." Their slogan was, "You'll smack your lips if it's Eclipse."

1940s - Autocrat of Lincoln begin making their own mixture of corn syrup and coffee extract. Autocrat's slogan is "A swallow will tell you."

1991 - Both companies, Autocrat and Eclipse, used to vie for the coffee syrup business. Their rivalry ended in 1991, when Autocrat bought the Eclipse brand name and secret formula. Both labels are now produced by Autocrat and are available in stores.

1993 - After much political debate, and the debate was loud and passionate, the Rhode Island State Legislature proclaimed Coffee Milk as "The Official State Drink of Rhode Island" on July 29, 1993. The Providence Journal-Bulletin newspaper had a field day covering the story.

Coffee Cabinet 
- When ice cream is added, Coffee Milk is called a “Coffee Cabinet” or “Coffee Cab.”  In other words, a “cabinet” is a local term for a “frappe” which is a regional term for an ice cream milk shake. It is though to be called a “cabinet” because it unknown originator kept his blender in a kitchen cabinet.  Also mixers were often stored in square wooden cabinets.

In Rhode Island, a milk shake is just what it says: milk to which you add flavoring and then shake. In most of American, if you order a milk shake, you get ice cream blended with milk. In Rhode Island and most of New England, you would get chocolate powder or syrup stirred into milk without ice cream.


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Coffee Milk Recipe:

Recipe Type: Beverage, Coffee
Cuisine: New England, Rhode Island
Yields: 1 serving
Prep time: 5 min


2 tablespoons coffee-flavored syrup*
1 cup cold milk

* Autocrat Coffee Syrup is the preferred syrup in Rhode Island. There are lots of internet sources for purchasing this syrup online.


In a large glass, add coffee syrup and milk; stir well. Taste and add more coffee syrup to taste.

Makes 1 serving.



Comments from Readers:

Mary Ellen Barker sent the following comments:

Thanks for the information regarding coffee syrup.  I am native of Newport who left RI after college and have returned home every summer (almost, missed two summers) for the past 37 years. Settling down in NC in 1980, we do crave the RI cuisine, especially Eclipse Coffee Syrup.

One year my husband bought the "other brand" by accident (he is from Tennessee, what does he know?) and we suffered through that mistake but it never happened again.

My oldest daughter, married and living in Winston Salem, called me all excited a few years ago.  She found our good old Rhode Island Coffee syrup for sale at the Fresh Market there in WS in the section reserved for imported foods!!!  We order a case from RI during the winter usually and bring home plenty every summer during our visits and our southern friends just love it too!!!  Thanks for the website and info about our favorite beverage!!!

Michael Farris sent the following comments:

I was born, raised, and educated in Rhode Island. Although I live in Massachusetts in a suburb of Boston, 55 miles away from Rhode Island - it's still dear to me. As I write this, I have an empty glass of coffee milk on my desk.

But you need to know a little bit about the culture of Rhode Island. It is encapsulated by a cartoon by Don Bousquet. A highway sign greeting travelers at Rhode Island's border says, "You are now entering Rhode Island. Keep your smart remarks to yourself." We are independent and get very defensive when someone belittles our state or it's heritage.

Everyone in Rhode Island knows southeastern Massachusetts is a just a wannabe Rhode Island. Ask anyone in Boston where Attleboro or New Bedford is and they'll kinda scratch their heads and say, "On the way to the Cape?" It's a nebulous region below the southern suburbs of Boston and before Cape Cod. The only town in that whole area that does not have identity crisis is Plymouth. Stick a southeast Mass. resident in Rhode Island, they'll probably pass for RI'ers. The same can not be said for the reverse. And don't even get me started on New Hampshire. Coffee milk and syrup are serious business! My grandmother never really liked the fact that my Dad had Eclipse in our house, while hers was an Autocrat household. I prefer Eclipse but I will buy and consume Autocrat in a pinch.

In my experience, it's true that 10 miles outside RI, no one knows our delicacies. Thanks for the lovely web article.

Allan Bailey sent the following comments:

Originally from Rhode Island, I grew up on coffee milk and still can not drink a glass of milk without a dash of syrup. I have found coffee syrup in supermarkets in New Jersey and North Carolina.


Emily Fekete sent the following comments:

I love your food website!! However, I was reading the entry on coffee milk and you claim that the only place in the world where it is found is in Rhode Island. This is false! Coffee milk is all over New Hampshire. You can buy it from convenience stores just like you would chocolate or strawberry milk. Just thought I'd give you a heads up!


Ann McCormick Ganly of Rhode Island sent the following comments:

I must protest! I am a native Rhode islander whose family has resided in this state for several generations. Autocrat leaves a horrible bitter aftertaste. REAL Rhode Island Coffee Milk is made with Eclipse Coffee Syrup. Try it! The proof is in the taste. The Eclipse brand is owned by the Autocrat Company in Lincoln, Rhode Island. However, the difference between syrup sold as "Autocrat Coffee Syrup" and "Eclipse Coffee Syrup is night and day. In the 50+ years that I've been around, I have never had a native Rhode Islander (living out of state) ask me to send them Autocrat Coffee Syrup. Many have sent an SOS for a case of Eclipse Coffee Syrup.

A coffee shake is coffee syrup and whole milk, add a few ice chips and whip until frothy in a blender. This is really good with  made with light cream and a dash of vanilla. It's like a Kahlua Sombrero without the buzz.  mmmmmmm . . . decadent, but yummy.

A coffee cabinet is a coffee shake with ice cream - well blended. A few miles up the road in Massachusetts, this is called a "frappe." Some refer to a coffee cabinet/frappe as a "coffee shake" - which only adds to the confusion. The ultimate cabinet is the "Awful-Awful. If you could drink three, the fourth is free! Awful-Awfuls are the trademark drink of the Rhode island based Newport Creamery restaurant chain.


Patti, an ex-Rhode Islander, and presently of Stow, Ohio sent the following comments:

I agree with Ann. The Awful is the BEST cabinet/frappe/shake in the world - whatever you call it! When you move away from RI, all you do is crave the food night and day!  Eclipse is the best and NY System Weinies and DEL's are the Bomb!  Newport Creamery Rocks and I miss R.I! The rest of the world has no idea that Little Rhody is the greatest state in the country with the greatest food in the world!


I was just going through your website, enjoying the New England section particularly, when I noticed a sentence on the coffee milk page that is a mistake. - Kirsten

"If you travel more than ten miles from the state border, no one will know what you’re talking about."

Coffee milk is considered a New England "thing". Thus meaning it is available throughout the area, not just in Rhode Island. You can go up to Boston (which is more than ten miles from RI), and they will know what you're talking about when you asked for coffee milk. Even growing up in New Bedford, MA, which is about 45 minutes east of Providence, RI, you can find both Autocrat and Eclipse Coffee Syrup.


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