• The Cabinet

Black Gold: How Coffee Brands are Innovating into a Liqueur Market

Patron is to retire Cafe X0 - a loss for bougie clubs, and people that like palatable shots everywhere. But with this notable product gone, we look at how the landscape of boozy coffee products has evolved, and ask, what’s next?


If you listened carefully last week you may have heard a collective sigh as the owners of other coffee liqueur brands eyed a new gap in the market. So beloved was Café XO – which combines Jalisco-produced Patrón Silver Tequila, alongside Arabica coffee sourced from the Mexican states of Veracruz and Chiapas – that fans have petitioned Bacardi to reverse their plans.


What was the source of Patron’s particular popularity? In a flurry of shots that either burned or were intensely herbal, Café XO’s almost chocolatey coffee profile was a classier, tastier option. When it launched in 1992, it was also a marked step forward for coffee flavoured booze products, leading on the notes of the coffee, rather than a creamy, or overtly sweet profile.


Happy bedfellows


Coffee and alcohol may be happy bedfellows when it comes to flavour, but they’ve a relatively recent history of being combined, at least commercially. The Irish Coffee was devised in the late 1940’s, whereas the Espresso Martini was born in the late 80s. Brands-wise, longstanding leaders such as Kahlua and Tia Maria, launched in the 1930s, and 1950s respectively.


However, coffee booze combos have evolved rapidly in the last ten years, chasing, sometimes mirroring, yet not quite keeping pace with increasingly artisanal coffee trends, and the growing number of consumers plugged into them.


Café XO may have been an early bird, but an increasing number of competitors have been vying for its crown. From cold brew, to single origin, and specific bean varieties, to different roasting and brewing processes, the latest wave of boozy coffees offer ever nuanced varietals and flavours, that appeal both to coffee lovers, while tracking broader alcohol trends. From Conker’s Cold Brew Coffee Liqueur (made withBrazilian and Ethiopian coffee beans), to Faith & Sons Coffee Liqueur, where roasted green coffee beans are combined with a gin base.


Strong coffee culture


Perhaps unsurprisingly, a number of these products and brands have emerged from countries with strong coffee cultures. Step forward Australia. Bartender favourite, Mr Black, “was born from a desire to take Australian coffee culture into the night”, according to the brand. It claims that coffee in Australia is “a culture: a ritual, obsession, aesthetic, experience and community”.


Created to reflect trends in coffee, the brand works directly with farmers, cooperatives and importers to source ethically cultivated, sustainable coffees, which it then roasts at its own distillery-based roastery. Cold-brewed to retain flavour, its products use a wheat vodka base, with a hint of cane sugar, to allow the coffee notes to shine through. It launched a limited edition, Single Origin Ethiopia varietal for World Coffee Day in 2020.


This side of the pond, Hejlo brings together two local independent businesses, coffee specialists, Hej Coffee Roasters and spirit specialists Jim & Tonic, who have focused on communicating the nuances of their craftsmanship and production, or roasting techniques. Made from organic coffee, locally roasted and with a hint of raspberry, as per coffee consumption trends, it details that its hand-roasting to slightly darker than espresso and use of nothing artificial, results in a taste profile that is spot-on for a perfectly mixed Espresso Martini.


Alcohol-aligned products, such as tonics, have also emerged. Thomas Henry Coffee Tonic

the German mixer brand claimed to have revolutionized the coffee segment, leading with its cold-extracted coffee notes, and aimed to be an easy switch from cold brew coffee, for time-pressed bartenders.


Interpreting trends


However, generally when it comes to keeping up with the fast pace of coffee trends, it has to be said that alcohol brands are largely lagging behind. Though many have kept up with bean preferences, and brewing fads, few it seems, have tracked important evolutions in mouthfeel, which have dominated viral coffee trends of late. Think sparkling coffee, and the whipped and frothy Dalgona coffee, which dominated social media posts in early 2020 lockdowns.


One recent US launch from Guinness, however, has made a move in this direction. Tapping into the nitro coffee trend, Nitro Cold Brew Coffee beer has a thick mouthfeel, is described as notably coffee-forward, and is intended to target “iced coffee season”. In short, Diageo is squarely aiming at tapping into the established habits of coffee consumers.


Yet the timing for sensorial trends feels particularly critical. As we emerge from the pandemic, consumers are increasingly seeking new sensory experiences. Conquering mouthfeel then, looks set to be the next frontier for coffee booze. Brands that manage to tap into the fast pace of – and visual spectacle – of current coffee trends, will be rewarded with buy-in from coffee lovers, and let’s face it, a tonne of Instagram posts.