Five bartender-approved bottles for your next round of Espresso Martinis.
Virtually every niche drink ingredient that has risen to prominence has had a classic cocktail to champion it. Absolut Citron had the Cosmopolitan; crème de menthe had the Grasshopper; crème de violette had the Aviation; and coffee liqueur has had, most recently, the Espresso Martini.
While the craze around that particular coffee cocktail has led to a boom in sales of coffee liqueur—the category grew by about 24 percent in 2020—craft options have been steadily entering the market over the past couple of decades. In fact, Mr Black, the fastest-growing brand in the global coffee liqueur category over the last five years, made its debut back in 2013—only to be acquired by multinational drinks powerhouse Diageo in September 2022.
Many of these contemporary coffee liqueur brands have been patiently waiting on the sidelines for their moment in the spotlight, and the resurgence of the 1980s classic has finally given them a platform to show bartenders why their brand is worthy of a place on the backbar or bar cart. The category shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon, and consumers can expect to see even more new brands race to market over the next few years. Still, sometimes the tried-and-true formulas are best. Amid the inevitable decision fatigue, here are a few of the essential coffee liqueurs to consider, and how to use them.
Five Coffee Liqueurs to Try
Mr Black Cold Brew Coffee Liqueur
This award-winning, unfiltered coffee liqueur is made with Australian grain spirit and arabica coffee beans from Papua New Guinea, Colombia and Kenya. These beans are roasted in-house as a part of the production process—a step that drives home the brand’s dedication to having a hand in every step of the beans’ journey from field to glass. To showcase the quality of the coffee, the liqueur is made slowly, using purified cold water and a cold brewing process to retain the delicate and complex flavors of the beans.
“Mr Black is drier than most other coffee liqueurs and has a more natural-tasting coffee flavor,” says Harrison Ginsberg, bar manager at New York’s Overstory. “The texture is notably different from other coffee liqueurs, as it’s less viscous and not excessively sweet.” Given Mr Black’s distinct notes of freshly brewed coffee, Ginsberg notes that the liqueur pairs particularly well with warm baking spices, such as cardamom and ginger, in stirred, spirit-forward cocktails. He adds, “It can easily be used like you would use a vermouth or fortified wine in drinks like a Manhattan.”
St. George NOLA Coffee Liqueur
St. George Spirits is known for its range of bartender-approved products, and the NOLA coffee liqueur is no exception. An homage to New Orleans–style coffee, this unique take on the liqueur is made with Ethiopian Yirgacheffe coffee beans, which are roasted to three different levels—light, medium and dark—in order to showcase all the flavors that the beans have to offer.
In true New Orleans style, French chicory root is roasted with the beans for notes of date and plum, while Madagascar vanilla and organic cane sugar balance the coffee’s bittersweet earthiness. The nuanced profile makes it especially well suited to pairing with fruit flavor. “St. George NOLA has the viscosity you want from a coffee liqueur without being syrupy or coming across as a sugar bomb,” says Heidi Wittekind, bar manager at Tesse in Los Angeles. “I love pairing it with orange, as it reminds me of the chocolate oranges I grew up getting in my Christmas stocking every year, but it also goes great with banana, cherry and smoky spirits like mezcal.”
Born in Veracruz, Mexico, in 1936, Kahlúa is the OG of coffee liqueurs. “For me, Kahlúa is the benchmark classic,” says Liam Davy, head of bars at The Lowback in London. “It’s a staple of our backbar as we use it in most coffee cocktails—it’s so easy to work with.” The iconic coffee liqueur is made with 100 percent arabica coffee beans and, unlike others on this list, which use a neutral grain spirit, has a rum base. The combination of the coffee and rum is rested for four weeks, allowing the flavors to marry and create a beautifully blended liqueur that works in an array of classic cocktails. “Some of the more modern coffee liqueurs pair well with red fruits and citrusy flavors [because they’re drier or more bitter], but Kahlúa is a classic in the sense that it goes best with dessert-like drinks that have chocolate, nuts, nut milks, coffee and creamy ingredients,” says Davy. For trending classics like the Espresso Martini to crowd-pleasers like the White Russian, Kahlúa shouldn’t be overlooked. It is a time-tested recipe, after all.
Previously known as Galliano Ristretto, the Italian brand’s coffee liqueur is crafted with two varieties of dark-roasted coffee beans: arabica from Colombia and Brazil and robusta from India and Kenya. Arabica coffee is commonly used to make liqueurs because of its chocolate and fruit notes, but the inclusion of the bold, bitter robusta adds a unique depth of flavor to this bottling.
“In a cocktail, the sharper and more bitter flavor makes it possible for Galliano Espresso to be used as both a fortifier, adding body in a classic like the Espresso Martini, and a modifier, adding a layer of complexity in a serve like the Ristretto Manhattan, working almost like a bitter [liqueur],” says Agostino Perrone, director of mixology at Connaught Bar in London.
Tempus Fugit Crême de Moka
Often inspired by historical recipes, Tempus Fugit liqueurs, known for their banana and cacao offerings, are well-respected top-shelf options. Though not yet a home-bar staple, the Crême de Moka deserves consideration for its elevated profile and expertly sourced ingredients. Made with Ethiopian coffee, the expression is the quintessential coffee liqueur, with notes of cacao, vanilla bean and a roasted earthiness, all with a lush texture.
“It has a silky mouthfeel,” says Chockie Tom, Indigenous hospitality advocate and co-founder of Doommersive. “To be honest, I love it poured over a quality vanilla ice cream, but it’s also perfect [when mixed] with rums like the Jamaican Rum-Bar Gold.” Tom notes that she’s used this liqueur alongside sweet vermouth and spicy ingredients like Ancho Reyes in cocktails. “I like to look at the base notes of the liqueur and use them as a foundation for the drinks I want to create,” she says. Tempus Fugit’s liqueur presents a range of possibilities: “The spice, chocolate, coffee and vanilla are great jumping-off points, whether you want to lean into them or pair with them.”