An informal gathering where I discuss the attributes, the pros and cons, of some of the most popular coffee liqueurs…
The smell of coffee is not up front but in the distance, providing us with that element of mystery. According to the label on the back of the bottle, Tia Maria Liqueur dates back to the 17th century (or XVII century), although on the front label it says “Since 1947” (more mystery). Made originally in Jamaica, and now made who knows where (Wikipedia was no help, and Tia Maria's website was down), that first sip is, well, sublime, with a gentle, elegant finish. This stuff is GOOD. As far as coffee liqueurs go, this is my favorite, on the rocks or neat. Really good. Smooth, balanced, and flavorful. In fact, barkeep, one for the road, my good man! I must confess, the only thing that put me off buying a bottle all these years was the bottle itself. The design just looks kinda cheesy, whereas the bottle for Kahlúa brings you back in time. The bottle for Grind is Retro Steam Punk, the bottle for Caffé Lolita, Aztec/Art Deco! It just goes to show, don’t judge a book (or bottle) by its cover (design/label).
Let’s follow that segue to this coffee liqueur from Mexico. The benefit of Caffé Lolita is its price. It’s inexpensive. Okay, cheap. And with so many liqueurs in the “It’s THAT much?!” category (like Strega and Chartreuse!) it’s a delight to find something really affordable. (Also, its name is pretty cool, being a writer. Lolita!) When we open the bottle and give it a whiff, the first thing we encounter is a smell up front, almost over-bearing, yet one that is something other than coffee. Like an almost disturbing chemical sweetness. It’s not exactly off-putting, but it doesn’t draw you in as does the seductive fragrance of Tia Maria. So let’s skip the smell and go to the taste… Passable. Nowhere near as full-bodied and complex as Tia Maria, but not undrinkable by any means, with those notes of chocolate. And it improves as it sits in the glass. Caffé Lolita is for those of you who want to save money. It’s not the go-to coffee liqueur for a drink by itself, but mixed in a cocktail it acquits itself adequately, if you’re flexible and democratic.
In the world of coffee liqueurs, Kahlúa is The Man. Since its launch in Mexico in 1936, it has established a reputation for being THE coffee liqueur. I remember an episode of Mad Men where Don Draper is visiting his estranged wife in her bungalow in the hills above L.A., and he spots a bottle of Kahlúa on the shelf. He picks it up and looks at it, dumbfounded yet intrigued. It is intriguing, as the first thing one notices is the bottle, with that exotic, unusual design: dark brown and bright yellow with that “IMPORTED” label in red. You want to try it based solely on how the bottle looks. Then, once you open it, the smell… A pleasing, familiar scent of coffee, not too strong, not too weak, without any chemical weirdness (sorry, Caffé Lolita). Then the taste… balanced, rich, and flavorful. And yes, it’s on the sweet side. But these are coffee liqueurs we’re talking about. You expect some sweetness. Back to the taste… You can tell immediately why this is the Joe DiMaggio of coffee liqueurs. It’s consistently good. It bats 300 every year. You can’t go wrong with Kahlúa, by itself, or in a cocktail. The only problem is that it’s more than TWICE as expensive as Caffé Lolita. But then again, you get what you pay for…
Grind Espresso Shot Liqueur is the new kid in the coffee shop. That upstart barista who thinks he’s too cool for school, yet we find out later he’s as much substance as style. The first thing you see is the bottle and its label, all Old-School Steam Punk Cool (and already you’re drawn in). “Espresso Shot”… “Arabica Coffee Beans”… “In Collaboration With Baristas & Bartenders”… “From Bean To Bar”… Whoever designed it is a genius! And the color is a deep, dark brown like espresso, and then the smell… This, more than the others, smells like fresh coffee. You want to inhale it deeply, to drink it in, to consume it. And then, the taste… the bite of double espresso, with a finish that lets you know you’re drinking something alcoholic. I love Grind for its boldness. Its kickassness. Its badassitude. “F*** you, Kahlúa!” it says. To the point that I’ve opted to use Grind in lieu of Kahlúa in many of my cocktail recipes, and it works well. It blends in, yet it asserts its own bold, uncompromising taste, most recently in my "Espresso Martini" (See BLOG entry for December 9, 2016: “The Espresso Martini”).
So in conclusion, my advice, as an Ambassador of Mixology, is to get them all, as they all have a place on the shelf.