"Fresh brewed coffee? You didn't?" When that catch-phrase aired in TV ads for Folger’s in the 1970s, it was a BIG DEAL to find coffee that wasn’t prepared by stirring powder in a mug with hot water. In that same era, most of the coffee liqueur available was missing a crucial ingredient—real coffee. The sweet, fla- vored cordials were relegated to flavoring desserts and creamy drinks. Alcohol and coffee took a cheeky star turn in the ’90s when Jeff Bridges as The Dude in The Big Lebowski exalted the White Russian, famously warning a handsy thug, “Careful, man! There’s a beverage here!” However, a funny thing happened on the way to the fair trade espresso shop— coffee liqueurs are suddenly hot again. Starbucks deserves a hat tip for fueling America’s java mojo.
Credit for coffee’s emergence as a versatile partner for al-cohol arguably starts with Kahlúa. Comfortably seated in Pernod Ricard’s portfolio, Kahlúa has not only maintained the brand as a back bar staple, it has kept coffee front of mind with an evolving array of variations—such as Midnight, a mix of rum and deeper coffee flavors—and limited-edition flavors, from Pumpkin Spice to Chili Chocolate to Peppermint Mocha. Similarly, Patrón pushed the coffee liqueur envelope with XO Café, a mix of tequila blanco with coffee flavors— drier by design.
Not surprisingly, coffee’s renaissance has been fueled by emphasis on quality ingredients and technique and that often calls for a chill.
Tom Baker, founder of Australia’s Mr. Black, insists that using cold brew instead of coffee “essences” is key: “A chemical reaction occurs when hot coffee is cooled—resulting in the familiar sour taste found in a bad iced coffee. For cocktails served cold, cold brew is the best process.” Mr. Black’s cold brew starts with beans from a local roaster outside of Sydney. Wheat vodka serves as a base, with only a hint of sweetener. Baker believes this recipe works best in cocktails such as Coffee Negronis.Pittsburgh’s Allegheny Distillery produces Maggie’s Farm Coffee Liqueur using a similar process on a smaller scale. They create a cold brew concentrate that is then sweetened with dark brown sugar, and infused with homemade vanilla extract. The distillery’s own white rum serves as the base. New Orleans’ centuries old coffee culture has inspired modern liqueurs with unique characteristics. For its NOLA coffee liqueur an homage to the chicory-blended coffee style popular in the Big Easy—St. George Spirits out of Alameda, CA opts for a cold infusion process similar to cold brewing to extract flavors from Yirgacheffe coffee beans, which they coarsely grind in a giant grain mill, and roasted chicory root. Café Brulot is a traditional New Orleans coffee cocktail, made with Cognac, hot coffee and spices, often served as a flaming table side showstopper in the city’s upscale old guard restaurants. Skipping the pyrotechnics, Grand Brulot, produced by Tardy Cognac, uses its VSOP as a base for an espresso liqueur that captures the essence of that cocktail.
Making an Impression
Distiller Todd Leopold of Denver’s Leopold Bros. is among those cognoscenti who swear by French press as the best brewing method. Scaling that concept up, he uses 25-liter wine press to produce Leopold Bros. American Coffee Liqueur. Beans from a local roaster are coarsely ground to avoid post-press sediment. A mixture of fresh pressed coffee, the distillery’s own neutral spirit and a touch of syrup from raw cane sugar is bottled while still hot to preserve pure flavors. Most modern coffee liqueurs opt for a bittersweet finish to enhance the coffee notes, but Kansas City’s J. Rieger takes it a step further with Caffè Amaro. This bitter variation is produced using single origin beans locally roasted and chosen to enhance the juniper, cardamom, orange peel, spearmint, gentian and other botanicals infused into the base spirit, which is then lightly sweetened with evaporated cane syrup.
While new acts have commanded the most attention of late, there’s something to be said for traditional European coffee liqueurs. Galliano Ristretto, made with Robusta coffee beans, and Heering coffee liqueur blended with Caribbean rum, remain perennial go tos for bartenders to use in cocktails such as Espresso Martinis. In Italy, locals have been sipping Caffè Borghetti since the 19thcentury. Made with brewed espresso, the spirit recently relaunched stateside just in time for a coffee cocktail boom, with bartenders such as Lucinda Sterling at Middle Branch, NYC and Jeremy Oertel at Donna Cocktail Club in Brooklyn creating updated versions of classic coffee cocktails. Not unlike the “regular” coffee market, where small coffee houses are holding their own amongst Starbucks, the coffee-flavored beverage alcohol sector will likely continue to grow at boththe mass-market and boutique ends. Perhaps a snapshot of future growth can also be seen in the Ready-To-Drink category. RumChata developed a crowd pleasing shelf-stable FrappaChata iced coffee in both regular and Mocha. Brand new and at the same 12.5% ABV strength, Cafe Agave Spiked Cold Brew Coffee is stretching the RTD market with four coffee-forward flavors that include fermented agave in the mix. With all the new products in the coffee vein, java aficionados have never had a greater selection of variations of their beloved brown brew. ■