Once upon a time not so long ago, the word “barista” had yet to be uttered upon the cognoscenti’s lips. Coffee was coffee, and coffee liqueurs were pretty much all created equal. In those dark ages of mass production and bagged sour mix, Tia Maria and Kahlúa were the most popular coffee liqueurs on back bars; both used real coffee beans and rum. A little later, Patrón introduced its low-proof version of XO liqueur that used tequila instead. And in the dawning of the new age of the cocktail, Galliano bucked the trend by using a combination of beans with a high ratio of arabica coffee to emulate the rich and intense flavors of espresso in its Ristretto liqueur.
Today, the coffee liqueur is enjoying a spiritual awakening, with many brands introducing artisanal versions. Ask any bartender their favorite recipe for an Espresso Martini, and you’re likely to get a range of answers. But one thing they all have in common is the use of coffee liqueur. I interrogated my bartender peers about their brand preferences, and the discussions got quite heated.
To get to the bottom of the matter, I decided to stage a blind tasting. I enlisted the highly attuned palates of a couple of New York City’s finest bar professionals: Erik VanderWal, the previous bar director of Pravda and owner of the Brooklyn hit Public Records; and Meaghan Montagano, the former beverage mistress and bar manager of Dumbo House, Extra Fancy and La Sirena and currently at Public Records. We settled on these five liqueurs.
1: LEOPOLD BROS. ($32, 20% ABV / 40 PROOF)
It’s made using a proprietary blend of freshly roasted coffee beans for a French-press-style American coffee liqueur. The press acts as a sieve preserving the natural full-bodied flavor of the beans once the coffee has been added to the spirit. A touch of raw cane sugar is added to balance out the acidity.
Montagano: This tastes like someone blended cherry Robitussin and coffee. It’s a bit too soupy and not rich enough in coffee flavor for my taste.
VandeWal: It’s really acid-forward like it has citric acid in it.
2: PATRÓN XO CAFE ($30, 35% ABV / 70 PROOF)
According to Patrón’s website, XO is a blend of Patrón Silver and the essence of fine coffee. Tasting notes include chocolate and vanilla with a smooth yet dry finish.
Montagano: It tastes amaro-based, almost like Fernet-Branca and coffee. It’s bright and gentian-forward as if Cynar, coffee, and sugar had a baby.
VandeWal: It’s very agave-forward. Is this Tia Maria?
3: LOCKHOUSE REVOLUTION ($29, 35% ABV / 70 PROOF)
This coffee liqueur is cold-infused to be as bold as it is balanced, filled to the brim with complex roast notes and rich dark chocolate. Aged for three weeks in stainless tanks, it has a resulting aroma of dark chocolate and raisins with cacao nibs and vanilla on the palette.
Montagano: It’s like a long Americano, loaded with burnt sugar, caramel, and molasses—really nice.
VandeWal: It’s nice and clean—love the dryness.
4: ST. GEORGE NOLA ($35, 25% ABV / 50 PROOF)
This homage to New Orleans-style coffee from head distiller Dave Smith of St. George Spirits in Alameda, Calif., is made using Ethiopian arabica beans, roasted French chicory root, and Madagascar vanilla. As with Mr. Black, the coffee beans are roasted on premise, and the blend relies heavily on dark roast beans but also incorporates some lighter roasted beans for fruitier notes to balance out the darker complex notes. The flavors are extracted using a cold-infusion method.
Montagano: It tastes like Maxwell House and takes me home to waking up on Christmas Day and my mom making coffee, with the house smelling like chicory and coffee.
VandeWal: It has a burnt taste, like over-roasted coffee.
5: MR. BLACK ($40, 25% ABV / 50 PROOF)
New on the scene and highly regarded by many drink professionals, Mr. Black was “born from a desire to take Australian coffee culture into the night,” according to its website. It’s made by hand, using cold-brew coffee concentrate from its coffee roastery just outside of Sydney. For master distiller Phillip Moore and head of coffee Detlef Mohr, fine-tuning Mr.Black’s water composition and temperature are life-long obsessions. A blend of arabica beans and Australian wheat-based vodka, the product contains half the sugar and 10 times the coffee of Old World coffee liqueurs. The big difference here is that unlike other coffee liqueur producers, Mr. Black roasts its own coffee so that the level of flavor in the beans can be controlled in house.
Montagano: Creamy, rounder, Eggnog-rich—is this Kahlúa?
Vandewal: Nice, balanced, rich flavor