We sat down with Mark Hibbard, bar manager of Black Cow in Portland and go-to Maine Spirits expert, to learn more about how to choose the right coffee liqueur for your cocktail and how to mix it creatively.
MS: The brand of coffee liqueur that most Mainers are probably most familiar with is Allen’s Coffee Brandy. What is a coffee brandy, and is it different from a Coffee Liqueur like Kahlua or St. George Coffee NOLA?
MH: Allen’s Coffee Brandy starts off as a distilled fruit wine, that’s why it’s labeled as brandy. After distillation the brandy is mixed with sugar, coffee, and other flavorings. A similar process is used for Kahlua, except they use a rum base. St. George, I believe, is a neutral base, but they favor a cold infusion process like a coffee shop would use when making a cold brew coffee. St. George also adds chicory and vanilla bean, and is on the dryer side compared to Allen’s or Kahlua.
MS: What is the difference between a coffee liqueur, and a coffee spirit, such as Jameson Cold Brew, or Van Gogh Double Espresso? Can they be used interchangeably in a cocktail?
MH: The difference here is sugar; when you see the word liqueur on a bottle of alcohol that means sugar has been added. Coffee spirits, on the other hand, are a blend of liquor and coffee or coffee flavoring. Jameson Cold Brew is a blend of cold brew coffee and Irish whiskey, while Van Gogh Double Espresso is vodka and coffee.
I wouldn’t necessarily use them interchangeably. If you were to swap in a coffee spirit for a coffee liqueur you would most likely have to account for the loss of sweetness that the sugar in the liqueur provides. You could add a little simple syrup or honey maybe, or find another liqueur that plays well with coffee.
MS: How are coffee liqueurs typically used in a cocktail? For example, are they typically used as the primary ingredient, or a modifier to compliment more traditional spirit? Are they there to add sweetness, or bitterness?
MH: Most coffee liqueurs lean more to the sweet side than bitter, so typically it is used to compliment something more traditional like whiskey, or vodka. It allows you to soften a strong spirit while adding another flavor into the mix.
MS: What other liqueurs do coffee liqueurs mesh well with?
MH: Coffee goes great with nutty flavors, so a hazelnut liqueur like Frangelico comes to mind. Grand Marnier’s orange flavor is another good one. Just remember that when you are mixing two or more liqueurs in the same drink that you are adding sugar to sugar, and it can throw the cocktail’s balance off by making it too sweet. If you do find yourself in this situation where the cocktail’s flavor is good but the drink is too sweet, consider using an unsweetened coffee spirit. Or, you can always make your own coffee spirits by infusing coffee into your spirit of choice. Just find a cold brew coffee recipe that you like and instead of water use liquor. This works especially well with darker, aged rums.
1 oz Frangelico Liqueur
1 oz Wild Turkey Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
MS: Can you think of an unconventional and surprising flavor combo that coffee liqueurs work well with?
MH: I love coffee and pineapple. Sometimes the best answer for working with a big full bodied ingredient like coffee is to throw in other big flavors. Pineapple juice has a good amount of acidity and fruity sweetness to stand up to the bitter side of coffee. Another nice thing about using pineapple and coffee is the texture. When you use cold brew coffee or pineapple in a shaken drink you get a nice froth, but when you use them together it forms a really nice foam and velvety mouthfeel.
1 oz Allen's Coffee Flavored Brandy
2 oz Coconut rum
1 oz Lemonade
2 oz pineapple juuice