In the 1920s, when southern Italian immigrants brought their tradition of heavily sweetened coffee to Rhode Island, coffee milk was born. The beverage is so popular in Rhode Island that on March 30, 1993, the Rhode Island State Legislature designated coffee milk as the official state drink.
Between 1898 and 1932, nearly 55,000 Italian immigrants arrived at the Port of Providence, in spite of limitations imposed by federal laws which discriminated against immigrants from outside northern Europe. Many Italian immigrants worked in the textile mills at low wages while introducing the state to their culinary traditions.
As soda fountains and diners developed across the state, coffee milk moved from immigrant kitchens to diner menus. A soda fountain operator developed a coffee syrup by sweetening leftover coffee grounds with milk and sugar to create a molasses-like extract that, when mixed with milk, became coffee milk.
People also made coffee milk at home by mixing milk with the coffee syrup themselves. Coffee milk should not be confused with a cabinet, a drink made from milk, ice cream, and flavored syrup blended together. The blender used to make them was stored in a cabinet, giving the drink its name. If you ask for a milkshake in Rhode Island, you will receive milk shaken with flavoring, either powder or syrup, but no ice cream.
Two companies, Autocrat and Eclipse, quickly began producing the popular coffee syrup used to make coffee milk at home and in restaurants. Autocrat and Eclipse maintained a decades-long rivalry as each other’s primary source of competition. Founded in 1914, Eclipse began producing syrup in the 1920s and started selling it to consumers in 1938 when retailers, in addition to restaurants, began selling their syrup. Based in Warwick, Eclipse popularized their product with the slogan “You smack your lips if it’s Eclipse.” In the 1940s, Autocrat, based in Lincoln since 1895, countered with their own marketing campaign: “A swallow will tell you.” Although they acquired Eclipse in 1991, Autocrat continues to manufacture and market both brands. Newer local brands like Dave’s Coffee and Morning Glory offer syrups with no artificial colors, sweeteners, or high fructose corn syrup and show that contemporary Rhode Islanders still crave the long popular state drink, coffee milk.