Coffee-flavoured spirits or liqueurs have been served alone or as part of cocktails for more than three centuries. A coffee liqueur is essentially a distilled alcoholic beverage that uses coffee as one of its major components.
The recent rise of microdistilling has opened the door to all-new unique and small batch liqueurs, many of which mix high-quality, complex coffees with spirits. Naturally, this change has quickly started to capture the interest of home coffee consumers as well.
To learn more about the world of coffee liqueurs and how you can make your own at home, I spoke with two Coffee in Good Spirits champions. Read on to find out what they told me.
You might also like our article on coffee liqueurs & spirits and how quality is changing.
A brief history of coffee liqueurs
While it’s believed that the first coffee liqueur can be traced back to the 1500s, most modern coffee liqueur brands today originated in the 20th century.
Many of these popular brands originated in coffee growing countries which also produced alcohol. Kahlúa, for instance, was developed in 1936 in Mexico, while Tia Maria can was originally manufactured in Jamaica.
Through the 20th century, coffee liqueurs became popular through a number of different pop culture references. The White Russian, for instance, was popularised by the protagonist of the 1998 Coen Brothers film, The Big Lebowski, while the legend behind the espresso martini is another matter entirely.
What’s the difference between liquor and liqueur?
Before we get into the details of making your own coffee liqueur, an important distinction must be made between liquors and liqueurs.
A liquor is a classic fermented spirit made from a raw material; sugar cane for rum and grains for whiskey or vodka, for instance. A liqueur, however, is a type of “base” liquor that has been sweetened and flavoured.
This gives it a specific flavour and a syrupy consistency, as sugary flavours are often added after distillation.
Liquors generally have a higher alcohol content than liqueurs. It’s also important to note that while sugar is an essential component of any fermentation process, liquors are often not sweet.
Coffee liqueurs vs. liquor coffees
In the world of mixology, the terms that describe coffee-related alcoholic drinks can be confusing.
Liquor coffee refers to cocktails that contain brewed coffee, which is typically mixed with distilled alcoholic beverages (liquor/spirits) – such as Irish coffee.
Coffee liqueur, meanwhile, is a beverage all on its own which uses coffee as one of its main ingredients. They can be used in coffee cocktail recipes, or they can be enjoyed on their own.
Some coffee liqueurs are manufactured with soluble/instant coffee, while others are made with a coffee concentrate.
Artisanal coffee liqueurs
Matthew Foster is the 2019 USA Coffee in Good Spirits Champion and manager of The Annex, a specialty coffee shop in St. Louis, Missouri. He believes that the best at-home cocktail recipe is the easiest one.
He says that a good artisanal coffee liqueur is an easy way to elevate almost any coffee cocktail, making them incredibly versatile.
He says: “Add it to some hot chocolate and you have what you could call a midnight mocha. Shake it with some cold brew coffee, cream, cane syrup, and mint, and you have a coffee mojito.”
One of the most difficult parts of creating quality coffee cocktails is balancing all the ingredients you use. According to Matthew, this is because brewed coffee is predominantly water – which means you dilute the cocktail right from the start.
In addition, if you use hot coffee as the base of a drink, you typically have to add ice, which further waters the drink down.
He says: “A coffee liqueur is a good option for bypassing this issue. By using one, you can achieve the desired coffee flavour and bring in that sweetness.
“This leaves more room for other ingredients and helps make your recipes and ratios more straightforward.”
Emerson Nascimento won the Brazilian Coffee in Good Spirits Championship in 2017 and 2020. He’s also a trainer and coffee consultant based in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
He decided to make his own coffee liqueur because he believes that the products available on the market don’t use quality coffee.
He says: “To produce the highest quality liqueur, I use specialty coffee and high-quality vodka – my favorite spirit to use in this case.”
Why consistency and sweetness matter when making your liqueur
A liqueur can be used as the base for a variety of cocktails or it can simply be enjoyed on its own – it all depends on the consistency.
The White Russian and Black Russian, for example, use milk in their recipes. The syrupy consistency of Kahlúa is essential to the identity of the drink. Other drinks, like the espresso martini and coffee negroni, require thinner liquids that contain less sugar.
Emerson says that most artisanal or premium coffee liqueurs are not particularly thick. Instead, he says, they tend to be quite thin. He says it all depends on the texture of the caramel (or other sugar base) used in its production.
There’s a wide assortment of coffee liqueurs on the market, and Matthew says each one has slightly different characteristics. Some are sweeter than others, and they all have different mouthfeels.
These variables can be altered to create the desired consistency. Emerson says that a versatile coffee liqueur should have a flavour profile that works with any number of “classic” coffee cocktails – meaning at least some sweetness.
“The amount of sweetness that each one has will directly influence the flavour of any drink that is prepared with it,” he explains.
Because of this, Matthew says that when creating a coffee liqueur, you should already know what cocktail you’re planning to make.
He says: “If I’m making an espresso martini, I create something drier. This helps to balance my other sweet ingredient – spiced vanilla syrup.”
Furthermore, the spirit base could be anything from rum to tequila – it doesn’t necessarily have to be vodka.
If the coffee liqueur is intended to be consumed exclusively as a digestif, spices like cinnamon and vanilla can also be added to give it a more complex flavour. However, if it’s going to be added to a cocktail, Emerson says you should skip the spices.
How does coffee quality affect the finished product?
Some coffee liqueur brands (often larger ones) tend to use commercial-grade or instant coffee to produce their beverages. This is then masked by the added caramels or sugars, which give it a sweet flavour and sticky mouthfeel.
Despite this, newer products which use higher quality beans are emerging. Quality is rising up the consumer agenda and people are becoming more discerning. Mr Black, for instance, offers coffee liqueurs made with specialty-grade cold brew and “top-grade” wheat vodka.
By using higher-quality beans that have an inherently desirable flavour profile, you will naturally boost the complexity of your liqueur – meaning there will be less of a need to add sugar and artificial flavourings.
According to Matthew, any high-quality coffee can be used when making your own liqueur. Your only consideration should be the type of cocktail you want to use it in.
For the recipe he shares, he tells me that he used a natural Ethiopian coffee, and said its floral notes and sweetness played “beautifully” into the drink.
Emerson’s coffee liqueur recipe
- Raw sugar
- Cold brew
- Mix one part vodka, one part cold brew, and one part caramel (see below) in an airtight container.
- Place the container in the refrigerator and allow the liqueur to mature for at least 15 days.
- Once matured, keep refrigerated.
Note: To make the caramel, simmer two parts sugar with one part water until brown and caramelised. Allow to cool before adding to the other ingredients.
Matthew’s coffee liqueur recipe
- 30g coffee
- 175g water
- 50g raw sugar
- Make a concentrated pour over using any filter brewing method. Use 30g of medium-fine ground coffee with 175g water boiled at 94C° (200F°). The brew should finish in 90 seconds.
- The yield should be about 100g of coffee concentrate.
- Add 50g raw sugar to the coffee concentrate.
- Combine in equal parts with a vodka of choice.
Sugary, thick, bitter, or sweet – making your own coffee liqueur gives you plenty of options. Whether you plan to use it in a cocktail or drink it over ice, you can tweak it to your liking using Matthew or Emerson’s base recipes.
So next time you reach for the Kahlúa or the Tia Maria – think twice. Consider making your own. Coffee and alcohol go perfectly well together – and making your own liqueur is yet another innovative use for the delicious beans you buy.
Enjoyed this? Check out these DIY coffee cocktails.
Photo credits: Emerson Nascimento, Matthew Foster, Pixabay, Unsplash
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