Coffee liqueur has long been pigeonholed as a one-trick pony, thanks to its role in the venerable White Russian. While there’s nothing wrong with the occasional "Caucasian" — as "The Dude" in The Big Lebowski so colorfully describes his drink of choice — it seems like a shame for a beverage with so much potential to be relegated to mixing with milk or cream. Or, worse, non-dairy creamer.
Some will argue that part of the reason why coffee liqueur has been the victim of Espresso Martinis and White Russians for so long is due to a lack of good brand options in the category. Many mass-produced versions are artificially flavored and oozing with sticky corn syrup, making them unappealing to those looking for a real zing of java.
Luckily, a handful of craft distillers across the country are now rebelling against this norm — using real sugar, spice and other natural ingredients — and teaming up with local coffee roasters to develop products that taste rich with the perks of a well-made cup of Joe. Instead of catering to the lowest common drinker, these small experimental producers are exploring their freedom to play with a broad range of flavors and techniques, helping coffee liqueurs find versatility in craft cocktail bars, as well.
Here are seven awesome craft coffee liqueurs for every kind of coffee drinker. No two of these liqueurs taste exactly the same, thanks to differences in coffee origins, levels of roast and brewing techniques used in partnerships with local roasters.
1. Leopold Bros. French Press-Style American Coffee Liqueur
There’s an elegant balance between clean coffee flavor and zingy raspberry in this liqueur from Leopold Bros. in Colorado. Distiller Todd Leopold worked with a local roaster in Fort Collins called Café Richesse to create a blend of three different kinds of coffee, ground to a coarse grain. Unlike many other producers, Leopold Bros. mix the sugar and base spirit (neutral in this case) while the mixture is still hot to make sure all the inherent aromas and complexities are captured in the bottle. It’s bright with a dry, earthy finish and very little acidity, ideal for fans of the French press style. leopoldbros.com
2. New Deal Local Roasters Line: Water Avenue Coffee
If you take your coffee in mocha form, this might be the best option for you. There’s a distinctively warm milk chocolate flavor to this Portland-made liqueur. While chocolate might suggest tons of sugar, that’s not the case. Cold-brew technique eliminates oppressive astringency, and they use a blend of organic agave nectar and cane sugar to sweeten without cloying the mix. New Deal also experiments with various local roasters to explore the nuance of quality beans and support small businesses in the area. newdealdistillery.com
3. Firelit Coffee Liqueur
In 2009, Firelit’s Jeff Kessinger set out to make a product that would be distinctly dry and coffee-forward. For fans of thick black drip sans cream, this one is big and bold with very little residual sugar. The coffee is cold-brewed into a base of unaged California grape brandy, so a subtle floral element intertwines with the sharp bitter pangs of the pronounced java. Firelit is also unique in that the company employs a different kind of coffee for every batch, to honor the variety found in the craft coffee industry. firelitspirits.com
4. St. George NOLA Coffee Liqueur
St. George also has a distinctive chocolate flavor, but it’s far darker and more complex than others. With an international blend of Ethiopian coffee beans, French chicory root and Madagascar vanilla, the liqueur tastes like a piping mug of opulent coffee served alongside a rich, thick slice of soft dark chocolate cake, cut with a ribbon of dark berry jam. Chicory adds a cinnamon-like earthy bark element to the mix, which is made via the cold-infusion process to keep bitterness to a minimum. It’s a boozy New Orleans dessert in a glass, but well-balanced for those shy of excess sweetness. stgeorgespirits.com
5. Bittermens New Orleans Coffee Liqueur
This New Orleans-inspired recipe is recommended for those who seek a bracingly strong, earthy and aggressively bitter taste to their coffee. Swim through a thin layer of vanilla and cacao nibs into a floral coffee flavor that finishes with a striking bitter punch. The company makes a point of supporting the local community by using Brazilian beans roasted specifically for Bittermens by Orleans Coffee Exchange in Kenner, Louisiana, and donating 50 cents of every bottle sale to New Orleans charities. spirits.bittermens.com
6. Roundhouse Spirits Corretto Coffee Liqueur
Let’s say you enjoy your coffee with three lumps instead of two. Well, this is the liqueur for you. Here, Roundhouse Spirits shares its take on the Italian “caffe corretto,” or coffee “corrected” with a shot of liquor. Madagascar vanilla bean and cane sugar dominate the glass, with Panamanian beans appearing as an almost after-thought. Great for those with a sweet tooth, or Starbucks flavored latte lovers. roundhousespirits.com
7. Journeyman Snaggle Tooth Coffee Liqueur
This Michigan distillery uses the house unaged bourbon as a base, giving it a strikingly more grainy flavor than others. An overdose of sweet evaporated cane syrup, vanilla extract and cinnamon sticks make this liqueur the most sugar-forward of the crew, so it’s best employed as just that — a sweetener in your favorite cup of hot joe. journeymandistillery.com
Think outside the White Russian and work a dram of coffee liqueur into a variety of classic cocktails for a dark boost instead. The crisp undertones of Bittermens New Orleans adds a delightful complexity to the New Orleans classic Vieux Carre, New Deal rounds and deepens your average Boulevardier and St. George adds a caffeinated kick to their twist on the Americano cocktail below.
The Caffeinated Sicilian
Recipe by Lauren Asta
2 ounces St. George NOLA Coffee Liqueur
1 ounce Campari
3/4 ounces Dolin sweet vermouth
1/4 ounces simple syrup
Stir all ingredients with ice, then strain over rocks, top with club soda and garnish
with an orange wheel.
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