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If you’re fixing yourself a White Russian or espresso martini, you’re going to need a coffee liqueur. While you may instinctively reach for Kahlúa, there are a wide variety of coffee liqueurs also to consider.
What is a coffee liqueur? The category is broad: All you need to do is take an alcohol base (it can be anything from amaro to vodka), infuse it with coffee, and add additional flavorings like vanilla and honey. Australian-made Mr. Black uses a vodka base and combines it with cold brew, making it a great option for an espresso martini. New Orleans’ Bittermens uses chicory root and locally sourced coffee to make a bitter, earthy sippable spirit.
Here are the best coffee liqueurs to drink now, as recommended by bartenders.
Best Overall: St. George Spirits NOLA Coffee Liqueur
“St. George NOLA Coffee Liqueur is our favorite coffee liqueur!" says Darlin Kulla, the beverage director and sommelier at KNEAD Hospitality + Design in Washington, D.C. "A distinctive mix of freshly roasted Arabica beans, French-roasted chicory root, and Madagascar vanilla, it's complex and earthy with a touch of sweetness. It is delicious by itself as an after-dinner drink but also makes the best White Russian."
Dave Smith, the head distiller at Oakland, California-based St. George, was inspired by New Orleans' famous chicory coffee when creating this coffee liqueur. Its Ethiopian Yirgacheffe beans are roasted locally then cold-infused in vodka and water before distillation. The liqueur is also a favorite of Gavin Humes, the food and beverage director at Scratch Bar & Kitchen in Los Angeles. To him, the fruit notes balance out its strong, dark roast coffee flavor and you only need a small amount to enhance your favorite cocktail.
Most Versatile: Kahlúa Original Coffee Liqueur
“My personal favorite coffee liqueur is Kahlúa,” says Kira Calder, the general manager at Lona Cocina & Tequileria in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
One of the best-known coffee liqueurs on the market, Kahlúa was created in Veracruz, Mexico, from sugar cane rum, vanilla bean, and Arabica coffee beans. It still has strong ties to the area, where it runs a program to sustainably source its coffee beans from farmers in the Veracruz region. Deep brown in color, the spirit is 21% alcohol by volume (ABV).
A frequent ingredient in espresso martinis, try it in a Sombrero or a Brave Bull, or utilize it in cooking and make a Kahlúa Bowl. “Kahlúa is smooth and versatile, it can be used for after-dinner cocktails or served neat like a cordial,” says Calder. “I also put it in our Mexican Iced Coffees.”
Best for Espresso Martinis: Mr. Black Cold Brew Coffee Liqueur
When looking to make an espresso martini, Victor Bautista at Concord Hill in Brooklyn, New York, reaches for Mr. Black, which is technically a cold brew liqueur. "It is made with 100% specialty-grade Arabica coffee that is blended with pure Australian wheat vodka and cane sugar," he explains. "I love it because it is very boozy yet smooth, plus the vodka base makes it great for espresso martinis and coffee negronis.”
Each bottle is 25% ABV and contains 1100 mg of caffeine per liter, far more than the average coffee liqueur (so don’t drink it before bed!). Mr. Black focuses on buying beans from sustainable producers, which are then processed into coffee liqueur at its roastery and distillery in Sydney, Australia. You should also keep an eye out for Mr. Black's limited-edition single-origin coffee liqueurs.
Best for Black Russians: Jägermeister Cold Brew Coffee
“My favorite coffee liqueur is Jägermeister Cold Brew Coffee,” says Jason Sorbet, the bar manager at The Chloe in New Orleans. “While it still has the rich coffee flavors you would expect, it also still carries the top notes of anise and menthol from the Jägermeister base, making it a well-rounded and complex product.”
Casey Jo Holman, a bartender at Compere Lapin, also in New Orleans, vouches for this bottle. “It’s herbaceous and not overly sweet,” she says. The expression combines the German digestif's recognizable intense herbal flavors with Arabica coffee and cocoa. That complexity will create a new layer to your tried-and-true cocktails.
Best for White Russians: Galliano Ristretto
“Used in the right proportions, coffee can take a stand or play a supporting role to more assertive flavors,” says Dean Hurst, beverage director for Datz Restaurant Group in Tampa, Florida. For cocktails, he recommends Galliano Ristretto. “It has a rich aroma of dark roast coffee that makes an intense White Russian.”
The Italian spirit is made with Arabica beans from Colombia and Brazil along with Robusta coffee beans from India and Kenya. The two different roastings of beans add layers of rich, complex flavors. Overall, the spirit is flavorful and rich, with heavy notes of dark chocolate and bitter espresso. This bottle lends itself well to pouring in a coffee.
Best Digestif: J. Rieger Caffé Amaro
Josué Gonzalez, bar manager at Seven Reasons in Washington, weighs in that its house coffee liqueur is J. Rieger’s Caffé Amaro. Made in collaboration with Kansas City-based coffee roasters, Thou Mayest, J. Rieger steeps single-origin coffee along with botanicals like juniper berries, orange peel, star anise, cardamom, and vanilla in used whiskey barrels to make this bottling.
"I’d say it's oh so good!" says Gonzalez. "It's my favorite for sipping neat, on the rocks, or mixing into a cocktail.”
It’s rich and bittersweet thanks to the amaro, an Italian liqueur known for bracingly herbaceous flavors. In the world of coffee liqueurs, this is a truly unique option. The bottle is 31% ABV and includes 467 mg of caffeine (roughly five cups of drip coffee per bottle).
Best Tequila Based: Patron XO Cafe Tequila
“Patrón XO Café Tequila is one of my all-time favorites,” says Marta De La Cruz Marrero, the food and beverage supervisor at Burlock Coast in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. “It’s like fresh-roasted coffee with notes of chocolate and light tequila. It’s great for shots, an after-dinner drink or you can even make dessert with it.”
The low-proof liqueur is made with Patrón Silver tequila that's blended with the essence of coffee. Handcrafted in Jalisco, Mexico, the spirit is dry, with flavors of fresh-roasted coffee and warm chocolate.
Best for Sipping: Bittermens New Orleans Coffee Liqueur
Bittermens New Orleans Coffee Liqueur combines two classic New Orleans flavors: chicory coffee and boozy spirits. The bottle blends Brazilian coffee beans sourced via Anderson Stockdale, a notable barista in the city, with organic French chicory root, vanilla, cacao nibs from Taza Chocolate, and Belgian-style candi syrup.
“Bittermens New Orleans has earthy chicory that works nicely with barrel-aged spirits in cocktails,” says Hurst. It’s rich, earthy, and pleasantly bitter, with a subtle sweetness from the Belgian candi syrup. The notes of chicory make this bottle particularly unique, great for sipping neat or adding into cocktails.
What to Look for When Buying Coffee Liqueur
Coffee and alcohol, what better two ingredients to combine to make a delicious liqueur. The type of coffee beans and how they were brewed can affect the taste of coffee liqueur. The way the coffee beans are processed can vary from being cold-pressed brewed to roasted. From arabica beans to Brazilian beans and other types of coffee beans, the flavor notes of coffee liqueurs are expressed through the beans, botanicals, chocolate, and liquor base used. Rum, vodka, amaro, and Jägermeister are just a few of the different liquor bases used in these liqueurs.
Nuances of chocolate, a strong coffee flavor, and a touch of vanilla and possibly hazelnut come to mind when thinking of coffee liqueur. But even though you expect a coffee liqueur to taste like, well, coffee, not all of them do. Surprisingly, some might only have a slight coffee flavor, taste sugary and overly sweet, and don't provide the dark, rich flavor of coffee that you expect in this liqueur. It is worthwhile to sample a few to see which one you prefer for your drinking pleasure.
How you're going to imbibe this luscious liqueur is something to consider when purchasing a coffee liqueur. Will you be sipping it by itself as an after-dinner drink? Or mixing it for a cocktail? Different liquor bases can provide a clue toward the coffee liqueur you will lean toward buying. A vodka-based coffee liqueur will make a delicious espresso martini, while one with amaro or Jägermeister can add a whole new dimension of flavor to your coffee liqueur cocktails.
What can you use coffee liqueur for?
Enjoy it neat, on the rocks, or pour some into your coffee or cocktails, including a White Russian or Black Russian. It's delicious drizzled on ice cream or used in baking goods.
How do you store coffee liqueur?
Once opened, coffee liqueur will keep for up to 18 months; simply screw the cap back on tightly before storing in a cool, dark place. Although you don't need to, some people prefer to keep it in the refrigerator after opening.
What is the alcohol level in coffee liqueur?
This type of liquor has a range of as low as 5 percent on up to 40 percent alcohol by volume (ABV), depending on the brand you choose.
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Kate Dingwall is a sommelier and spirits writer. She has been writing about the bar and spirits world for five years and has her BarSmarts and WSET certification.