March 29, 2021

Coffee liqueurs & spirits: Is quality getting better?

From the espresso martini and the white Russian to the Irish coffee and café com cheirinho, coffee and alcohol have gone hand in hand for centuries. Any drink that balances caffeine and alcohol is likely to be popular among consumers for obvious reasons. 

The same is true of coffee liqueurs and coffee-infused alcohols, which have become popular alongside coffee cocktails over the past few decades. 

But alongside a wider, emerging consumer focus on quality and sustainability, how are things changing? Are coffee liqueurs getting better? If so, how? And has specialty coffee culture played a part?

To learn more about how this market is changing, I spoke to three professionals who work for coffee liqueur companies. Read on to find out what they said.

You might also like our article on how to recreate a coffee shop cappuccino at home.

What is a coffee liqueur?

A liqueur is a beverage made by infusing distilled spirits with additional flavourings. In the case of a coffee liqueur (sometimes known as coffee-infused alcohol), this additional flavouring is roasted coffee, often whole bean, ground, or in concentrate form.

The mixture is left for several days or weeks to infuse, before the coffee is strained out. Sugar can also be added to make the liqueur sweeter.

While roasted coffee has historically been popular as a flavouring, in recent years, certain distilleries have started to use cold brew when infusing alcohol with coffee. This is one of the biggest new trends in the coffee liqueur segment, and has understandably become more common as cold brew’s popularity has increased.

This is because the high ethanol content of alcohol can disrupt the sensitive volatile compounds in coffee and change the final flavour. However, with cold brew, the flavours have already been extracted into the water, meaning that they aren’t affected in quite the same way.

Andrew Rall is the CEO and founder of Distillery 031, a craft spirit distillery based in Durban, South Africa. He opened his business in 2008 after a trip to Scotland where he learned about distilling whisky.

Since then, he says he has experimented with a number of different liqueur infusions, including coffee. He tells me that alongside the obvious draw of adding caffeine to alcohol, the flavour of coffee often works well with distilled spirits.

“I think the flavour profiles of coffee work nicely; they really complement the alcohol,” he says. “Coffee is also a stimulant, and alcohol is a central nervous system depressor, so if you get some of the caffeine coming through, it keeps you a little more alert. 

“Essentially, it means that you have a little more energy to chat and enjoy yourself, rather than getting sleepy.”

So far, Distillery 031 have released two coffee-infused drinks: D’Urban Scarlet Gin, which is the world’s first gin made with cascara (the dried skin of coffee cherries), and Heart of Darkness, a coffee liqueur.

Andrew tells me that the cascara used to make Distillery 031’s D’Urban Scarlet Gin is sourced from Beaver Creek Coffee Estate on the KwaZulu-Natal South Coast of South Africa. The cascara gives the gin a “subtle berry note” without being overpowering, plus a bright red colour.

Heart of Darkness, on the other hand, is an all-natural, “hand-crafted” liqueur that uses single origin arabica beans from the Meru region of Tanzania.

“I wanted a flavour profile that appealed to the coffee connoisseurs and baristas who liked speciality coffee, as well as to those who simply enjoy the taste of coffee,” Andrew explains.

A recent focus on collaboration

Christopher Vigilante is the CEO of Vigilante Coffee Co., a roaster based in Maryland. He tells me that collaborations are becoming especially popular in the coffee-infused alcohol market. 

This is because a collaboration brings together the separate followings of two brands from different sectors to deliver a product that is often only available for a limited period of time. 

As well as driving greater demand by “mixing” their followings, the two brands are also less likely to be competitors – a brewery and a coffee roastery generally aren’t direct competitors.

In 2017, Christopher tells me that Vigilante partnered with Flying Dog Brewery to produce Kujo, a 6% cold press “coffee porter”. Since its release, it’s topped the company’s list of best-sellers, particularly during the autumn months.

Traditionally, coffee liqueurs (such as Kahlúa and Tia Maria) have been made with spirits. Rum is a popular base for infused liqueurs, as its natural sweetness complements coffee well. 

However, in recent years, a broader range of alcoholic beverages have been used as the basis for coffee-infused alcohols – often in the form of these collaborations.

“I feel like collaborations create unique products because it’s two different perspectives coming together,” Christopher says. “When these collaborations occur, the outcome is usually a singular product that doesn’t last forever. 

“It’s out there for a little while and then it’s gone; to get it, you have to be there in the moment. People are really attracted to that.”

Christopher adds that these collaborations are also attractive because they encourage two different industries to share their knowledge and expertise.

“Our process is to put great coffees in front of these artisan craft brewers and distillers, and let their palates choose,” Christopher says. “Ultimately, they have the idea of what they want their product to be before they even come to us. We just help it come to life.”

Franklin Ventura is Vigilante Coffee Co’s head roaster. He tells me that after selecting their beans – including washed, natural, and semi-washed coffees – Vigilante set up a series of blind cuppings for the Flying Dog team.

“[The team at Flying Dog Brewery] will pick the coffees they think might work, take some samples, brew the coffees in their labs, and decide which one they’re going to use,” Franklin says.

“For Kujo, they told me they wanted to pair the coffee with dark malts and therefore needed a dark roast. In the end, they decided on one we call ‘Caturrita’ because it’s one of the darkest roasts we offer.

“It’s been running for three years in a row now and it’s one of Flying Dog’s top-selling beers.”

Does specialty coffee have a place in the liqueur market?

Even though specialty coffee has grown at pace in several major consuming markets, and despite collaborations from brands like Vigilante and Flying Dog, coffee-infused alcohols and liqueurs have largely maintained a reputation for using lower-quality, commodity-grade coffee.

Martin Hudak is a global coffee ambassador at Mr. Black, a coffee liqueur company based in Australia. He tells me that while he’s always been passionate about combining coffee and alcohol, he’s now made it his aim to improve the public perception of the quality of coffee used in liqueurs and cocktails.

“I want to combine those different worlds, because they’re not as different as you would think – they actually have a lot in common,” Martin tells me. 

“Coffee is changing, thanks to the rise of specialty coffee and its third wave. But coffee liqueurs didn’t change at the time; they got stuck in the past. Now it’s time to take a more modern approach.”

Martin tells me that a lot of coffee liqueurs are made with commodity robusta beans that often have defects. As a result, distillers add lots of sugars or artificial flavourings to mask the harsh, bitter taste. 

He advises the opposite, and says that the way to create a good-quality coffee liqueur is simple: use the best ingredients you can. 

“You have to make sure the coffee you use is the highest quality possible and the alcohol is just as good,” he says. 

“At Mr. Black, we use a natural grain spirit, such as vodka, because we want the coffee to stand out and be the most distinguishable ingredient when you smell and taste it.”

Unlike rum, vodka has a more neutral flavour that isn’t as sweet, meaning that it “carries” the underlying flavour of the coffee more effectively.

Martin tells me that when Mr. Black was founded in 2013, it was one of the first coffee liqueur companies to champion coffee as the most important ingredient of the liqueur.

He says that this philosophy has led them to source specialty-grade coffee and roast it themselves, before combining it with the “clearest-tasting” alcohol and lowest amount of sugar possible.

“I think less is more if the less is good,” Martin says. “I’m not here to promote higher alcohol consumption; I’m preaching higher quality coffee mixed with higher quality alcohol.”

The results Mr. Black has achieved as one of the first major brands to use specialty coffee in its liqueurs is evidence that this approach is working.

A collaboration with Campos Coffee in 2016 saw them use an award-winning natural Geisha in a limited edition range of liqueurs that sold out in just two weeks.

Will Young is the founder of Campos Coffee. He says: “Making high-quality liqueurs produces much better results. 

“It exposes how delicious high-end coffee can be. The majority will use very low-quality coffee in their liqueurs,” Will tells me. “We found that you could taste jasmine, for instance – a flavour note typical of the Panama Geisha we used.”

As the specialty coffee sector continues to grow, it seems like surrounding industries and market segments are starting to take note. Third wave coffee’s higher culinary appreciation of coffee is starting to trickle into other industries, causing breweries and distilleries, for example, to re-evaluate the coffee they use in their products.

As a result, coffee is starting to be viewed more as a way to add flavour, rather than just caffeine. As its quality increases, so too does the overall quality of the product it’s included in. And considering that household names such as Jagermeister and Jameson are starting to catch on and release their own coffee-infused alcohols, it seems like this growing focus on quality in coffee liqueurs is becoming more significant than ever.

Enjoyed this? Then try our article on adding coffee cocktails to your café menu.

Photo credits: Mr. Black, Vigilante Coffee Co., Distillery 031, Campos Coffee, Flying Dog Brewery

Perfect Daily Grind

Want to read more like this? Sign up to our newsletter!