From a creamy mudslide to a potent White Russian to an elegant espresso martini, coffee liqueur is an integral ingredient in the bartender's arsenal. These tasty and potent libations range in price from totally affordable to mind-numbingly expensive, so you can choose the quality liqueur based on how much of its taste is going to show up in your drink.
Kahlua has been around since its creation in Mexico in 1936 and is the brand most often used in American recipes that call for a coffee liqueur. Possibly its most famous incarnation is the White Russian -- Kahlua with vodka and half-and-half -- immortalized by Jeff Bridges as the Dude in the movie The Big Lebowski. Over the years, the rum-based Kahlua has expanded its menu to include cinnamon, salted caramel, French vanilla, mocha and the concentrated espresso version, Especial.
Coffee Shop Specials
It was only a question of time before coffee purveyors got into the business of making liqueurs, and it was a natural move for the behemoth Starbucks chain. Rather than featuring overtones of chocolate and a general sweetness, the Starbucks hefty liqueur tastes like, well, really strong coffee -- with a 20 percent alcohol kick. Firelit Spirits, a boutique operation out of Napa, California, kicks it up a notch with a higher alcohol content and the taste of dark-roasted coffee in a brandy base. The coffee beans change with every batch but it doesn't get any less expensive. The New Orleans coffee liqueur offered by Bittermens Spirits sports a tad more chocolate flavor but the addition of chicory to Brazilian coffee preserves the bitter flavor that inspired its maker's name. As an added incentive to purchase, a portion of every bottle sale goes to New Orleans charities.
How Sweet It Is
Ah, Baileys Irish Cream, a favorite over the holidays and in many a sweet cocktail, makes a version of its whiskey-based liqueur with a hint of coffee. Combined with espresso and vodka, it adds another taste component to an espresso martini. Even sweeter is Snaggle Tooth Coffee Liqueur, made with Nicaraguan coffee beans soaked in a potion of un-aged bourbon, vanilla extract, cinnamon sticks and thick cane sugar syrup. If you like your coffee really, really sweet, Coretto -- from the Italian expression for spiked coffee -- is made for you. The beans for this liqueur are hand-selected by legendary blind coffee roaster Gerry Leary of the Unseen Bean.
Don't bother with a cocktail; just pour Snaggle Tooth over ice cream.
From the Bottom Shelf
Coffee liqueur tends to be pricey but you can get some pretty tasty stuff from the bottom rung of the liquor ladder. At half the price of Kahlua, Mexico's Kapali coffee liqueur is a bit thicker and has a stronger coffee flavor. Also on the budget list is Kamora, a thinner, more delicate Mexican knockoff of Kahlua. It's great for creamy cocktails, and you can afford two -- or more -- bottles for the price of one of the more expensive models.
These liqueurs contain up to 24 percent alcohol. Drink responsibly.