For much of the 20th century, there were two brands of coffee liqueur available on the market: Tia Maria, originally made in Jamaica, and Kahlúa, which hails from Mexico, both released in the 1930s. Fast forward to today, however, and you’ll find that the market has boomed: A recent search of Total Wine’s website turned up 112 separate bottlings in stock.
To be fair, Kahlúa, which was a near-instant hit when it debuted in 1936, still holds the market share. And, though it’s typically used in not-exactly-hip cocktails, like White Russians and Mudslides, it nonetheless sells fairly steadily at around 1.5 million cases per year.
So perhaps it’s no surprise that independent distillers—many of whom proudly extol the beans they use, tell you what country they were sourced from and, as you might expect, whether they’re Fair Trade—are trying to get their piece of that pie. That’s especially true considering that coffee liqueurs are fairly easy to make; producers either steep grounds in, or mix cold brew with, an alcohol base and then add a sweetener and additional flavorings, like vanilla. (These alcohol bases can differ widely; while Tia Maria and Kahlúa both use rum bases, there are a large number of coffee liqueurs on the market that utilize grain neutral spirits, vodka, brandy and even tequila.)
So, are any of these recent craft entries into the category any good, and how much do they vary from brand to brand? Somewhat to our dismay, after a recent blind tasting of more than a dozen coffee liqueurs, the big brands still have the edge. For the tasting, PUNCH’s editorial staff was joined by Aaron Goldfarb, a frequent PUNCH contributor on beer and spirits. Here are the five brands that made the cut.
Patrón XO Cafe
The rare coffee liqueur where you can actually taste the base spirit, XO Cafe is Patrón Silver combined with “natural coffee essence” from southern Mexico. Introduced in 1992, this exhibits subtle agave notes on the nose before finishing pleasantly with flavors of dark chocolate and just a hint of vanilla. More spirit-forward and dry than others in the category, it’s the rare option that’s not too cloying to sip neat.
- Price: $23
- ABV: 35 percent
Galliano’s flagship product (produced since 1896) is more famously known for being the key ingredient in the much-derided Harvey Wallbanger, but the panel was surprised by how good the brand’s coffee offering is. Introduced in 2016, it claims to be the only espresso liqueur on the market, and is made using a variety of coffee beans (including Robusta from Kenya and India and Arabica from Brazil and Colombia), which are combined with grain neutral spirit. Despite the relatively high proof, Ristretto is much leaner than its competitors, with strong notes of maple syrup and sarsaparilla. Some tasters thought it could pass for a coffee-infused amaro, while others thought it tasted distinctly of liquidized Tootsie Roll.
- Price: $35
- ABV: 42.3 percent
Heering Coffee Liqueur
Many panelists were surprised that the more famous Cherry Heering actually had a coffee counterpart. We weren’t asleep at the wheel; while Cherry Heering has been around since 1818, Heering Coffee only hit shelves in 2007. Caribbean rum is infused with coffee and cacao beans, giving this Danish product an expected mocha note on the nose. The body is quite silky, redolent of butterscotch with just a hint of espresso bitterness.
- Price: $27
- ABV: 35 percent
St. George NOLA Coffee Liqueur
Perhaps the most acclaimed craft distillery in America produces perhaps the best coffee liqueur around, having first released it in 2014. Meant to evoke New Orleans-style coffee (a robust cold brew typically mixed with chicory, condensed milk and sweetener), locally-roasted Ethiopian Yirgacheffe beans are cold-brewed using water and St. George’s own vodka, then infused with French-roasted chicory root, Madagascar vanilla and organic cane sugar. The result is one of the most unique and complex offerings we tasted. It’s lean and musty, with notes of hazelnut, blueberries, slightly-tart cherries and just a hint of spice from the chicory.
- Price: $34
- ABV: 25 percent
House Spirits Coffee Liqueur
This multifaceted craft distillery from Portland, Oregon, occasionally produces this coffee liqueur in small quantities, using Barbados molasses pot-distilled rum combined with locally roasted Stumptown Coffee beans. One of the lowest-proof offerings in the category, it’s lean and savory, with notes of peanut butter and dark chocolate.
- Price: $37
- ABV: 20 percent