Published November 18, 2016
Coffee is an obsession across the globe with something on the order of 450 billion cups consumed every year. No place, however, is as hooked on the caffeine-laden elixir as the United States. Business empires and worker productivity levels are built on it. Without it, offices from New York to L.A. would grind to a halt, or at least develop a sudden addiction to Mountain Dew.
America’s love affair with coffee is a long and proud tradition. And while oftentimes whiskey or rum finds its way into those mugs and travel cups, sometimes it’s better to drink straight from the source, or at least add a little extra coffee to your coffee. And that’s where coffee spirits come into play.
Coffee-flavored booze comes in a wide variety of forms, from infused vodkas to creamy or syrupy liqueurs. Rarely sipped on their own, they tend to be found in the mix with cream, chocolate liqueurs, coffee drinks and other after-dinner cocktails. But strangely, for the fragmented world of alcoholic beverages, one coffee-flavored spirit has ruled the roost for decades – the Mexican import known as Kahlua.
There is, of course, good reason for this beyond marketing. Kahlua is tasty stuff. Creamy and sweet, with rich coffee flavor and a satisfying richness that pairs well with a wide variety of dessert-appropriate mixers. But new challengers to Kahlua’s supremacy pop up all the time – perfect for those drinkers looking for something a little different to spike their cappuccinos. But which of these upstarts are worthy of your fair trade half-caf double espresso soy latte?
Patron XO Café – Using a base of Patron tequila, Patron XO Café weighs in at 70 proof, nearly double Kahlua. It’s incredibly smooth, with just enough body to provide a rich and creamy mouth feel and could easily take the place of cream in any coffee drink. The roasted coffee flavors are sharp and pronounced, distilling what Patron calls “the essence of coffee” into the bottle. It’s also much less sweet than the typical coffee flavored liqueur, offering a more sophisticated taste that isn’t quite so sugary and offers a great deal more complexity and control over the sweetness level in your cocktail. The dry notes match it well with before and after dinner drinks, and it even works straight or on ice without getting cloying – a rarity among what most would assume is a dessert drink.
Thatcher’s Coffeehouse Liqueur – With hipsters, foodies and locavores among the most obsessed with coffee and all things organic, it’s not a particular surprise that the two come together in Thatcher’s line of organic spirits. Unlike most coffee liqueurs, Thatcher’s is far thinner, with less body and creamy texture, but it makes up for those qualities by bringing a ice cream-like level of sweetness. The coffee flavors are there, albeit slightly muted by the sugars. But the roasted beans come through nonetheless and are eminently satisfying as a shot in a plain cup of black coffee. Or even better – as a topping for an affogato: an Italian dessert consisting of a scoop of gelato drowned in espresso.
Smirnoff Dark Roasted Espresso – True Irish coffee fans likely scoff at putting a creamy concoction laden with sugar in their mugs of steaming Joe. But they might not object to dropping in a shot of overproof vodka infused with espresso. At 100-proof, Smirnoff Dark Roasted Espresso packs one heck of a punch, but despite the full-bodied name, the coffee flavors are far more subtle than in other coffee spirits. Most of the java notes coming through as aromas – the flavors buried under the heat of the vodka. That said, it makes for a great coffee-tinged vodka martini, or spikes the morning mug in a way that’d do a Bolshevik proud.
Cofia – Billed as a hazelnut espresso vodka, Cofia actually bears more resemblance to a liqueur due to a low ABV and correspondingly high sugar level. But that’s where the confusion ends. The hazelnut comes through loud and clear, with the coffee bringing up the rear for the creamy and smooth spirit. It’s just sweet enough without ever coming close to turning stomachs, no matter how much flows on ice or in drinks. It can, however, look a bit off-putting in the glass, with an oily sheen and just barely syrupy texture. But all that is forgiven and forgotten once the rich coffee flavors hit the tongue. The only real drawback is that it has too much sweetness to function as anything but a brunch or dessert drink. Of course, that just means there’s that much more incentive to skip the cheesecake and go straight for the coffee.