Coffee and alcohol are two of the best beverages on the planet, so combining them is just common sense. But I didn't really understand the true genius of coffee liqueur until I went to Hawaii and noticed it in unexpected places—in old school fruity umbrella drinks like the Bahama Mama and new Tiki creations made with coconut, falernum and lime, on top of a tropical fruit salad, and even shaken up with cinnamon, chiles, and cream. I had been pigeonholing coffee liqueur as just a part of a White Russian, only to find out that its potent flavor actually blends well with a variety of ingredients.
What's Available to Buy?
Most liquor stores carry coffee liqueur, usually Kahlua and Tia Maria. Kahlua is probably the most well known—if you're interested in how it's made, check out our behind-the-scenes slideshow.
A lot of people find Kahlua too sweet for use in anything but a classic White Russian, though. A little extra legwork can pay off for coffee liqueur connoisseurs. Firelit is made with small-batch freshly roasted cold-brewed coffee and brandy, so it tastes more like a cup of coffee than a sugary treat. Kahlua loyalists may find it too aggressive both in coffee flavor and alcohol content. Fair Cafe liqueur falls somewhere between Kahlua and Firelit, with strong coffee flavor and a less sweet taste but a bit less intensity than Firelit.
Homemade coffee liqueur tastes rich and full without any syrupy sweetness. Just like with coffee, not everyone takes their coffee liqueur the same way. If you're picky about coffee, you can use your favorite beans in your own liqueur, and you have the option of playing with the spirit base as well. You can mix light and aged rums for more complexity. Not a rum person? Then try bourbon or vodka instead. Or follow Kahlua's lead and flavor your concoction with cinnamon, hazelnut, or peppermint. The quick steeping time means no patience is required.
Get the Recipe
Making a "Russian" is coffee liqueur's most iconic job. For a Black Russian, add some of your liqueur to vodka. You can make it a White Russian by also adding cream. (The Black and White Russians are also available in cookie form.)
Want to branch out a bit? Look into tiki cocktails, or try The Revolver, a dry bourbon-based cocktail that will show off your liqueur without sugar overload. You can indulge your sweet tooth with a mocha-caramel-coffee milkshake. Or drizzle some of your homemade coffee liqueur over vanilla ice cream or sliced papayas for a simple dessert.
What's your favorite way to enjoy coffee liqueur? Whatever it is, your DIY version will really shine.
About the Author: Marcia Simmons is the co-author of DIY Cocktails: A Simple Guide to Creating Your Own Signature Drinks. She also shares cocktail recipes and tips on the DIY Cocktails blog and on Twitter @DIYCocktails.