Just over a year ago, Australian brand Mr. Black Cold Brew Coffee liqueur ($40 a 750-ml.), announced its “single origin” series, with each expression focused on a different coffee region. The series “captures the terroir” of individual coffee growing regions in a bottle, co-founder Tom Baker notes. “We’ve released two expressions so far, and they both sold out straight away,” Baker says, noting that consumers are eager to explore the nuanced flavor profiles offered. Mr. Black Single Origin Columbia carries a suggested retail price of $49 a 750-ml., while the Ethiopia-designated product is $40.
Founded in 2013, the Mr. Black brand was created to capture consumer enthusiasm for coffee. “Specialty coffee shops were popping up throughout the world,” Baker says. “The coffee that people were drinking was changing. Coffee liqueurs did not.”
This artisan approach is indicative of the growing sophistication of coffee-infused and coffee-flavored spirits in the U.S. market. Coffee-flavored spirits, mostly in the form of liqueurs, have been available in the U.S. for years, led by the quintessential coffee liqueur Kahlúa, but recent years have seen a surge in activity throughout the sector.
“There’s a lot of competition,” says Paul Hletko, founder and distiller at F.E.W. Spirits, which launched F.E.W. Cold Cut Bourbon ($45 a 750-ml.)—a Bourbon proofed down with cold-brew coffee—in September 2019. “The biggest is coffee liqueurs, and there are a number of good ones out there. As for bringing whiskey and coffee together, it’s still too small to call it a category, but we are seeing more of them.”
Whisk(e)y isn’t alone. Coffee has been infused into vodka, Tequila, and other spirits. Some brands date back decades while others are more recent additions to back bars and retail shelves.
Dave Smith, vice president and head distiller at St. George Spirits, says the newer activity helps push longer-running brands, such as St. George Nola Coffee Liqueur ($35 a 750-ml.), into the sightline. “I view it as a process of extension, where a consumer has a great experience trying a new product and suddenly discovers a whole new world that they didn’t know existed,” he says. “Over the last few years coffee products have started to take on that mantle, because coffee liqueur was a relatively simple offering for so long. We’ve seen different trends in the coffee world develop during the last couple of decades as our consumers became more knowledgeable. With that we’re seeing an easy overlay between more educated coffee consumers who know what they like and are going to chase it down and also better-educated spirits consumers who know what they like and what brands they trust.”
Even mega-brands like Kahlúa—which is the largest coffee spirit in the U.S. at roughly 800,000 9-liter cases in 2019, according to Impact Databank—are seeing increased interest as consumers explore more ways to incorporate coffee into their lives. “It’s no secret that coffee and coffee culture have been growing over the years, and as the world’s top coffee liqueur, we were well poised to lead the coffee cocktail movement, which has taken off significantly in the last year,” brand director Troy Gorczyca says.
In October, brand owner Pernod Ricard launched Kahlúa Blonde Roast Style, which features hints of citrus flavors and is designed to pair well with more mixers like tonic, coconut water, and lemonade. Earlier in 2020, the company launched Nitro Cold Brew to capitalize on the thriving canned cocktail segment. “These new innovations help highlight our serious coffee credentials, but in a fun, unserious way.” Gorczyca adds.
Leveraging A Brand Name
Other major spirits brands have also latched on to the coffee flavor. Cold brew, which involves soaking coffee beans in room temperature or cold water for extended periods to produce a sweeter, less bitter flavor, has been particularly popular as a selling point in recent years. Jameson Irish whiskey, for example, launched Jameson Cold Brew ($25 a 750-ml.) in January 2020. Jameson brand manager Vince Lichaa calls the combination “love at first sight” and says it’s won over consumers. “Jameson Cold Brew has been extremely well received and shows that people are thirsty for more innovation from the Jameson brand,” he says.
The new expression is also attracting consumers from different segments. “We’ve seen a healthy mix of avid Jameson drinkers, non-Jameson drinkers, and drinkers new to the Irish whiskey category,” Lichaa says. “Additionally, as expected, Jameson Cold Brew appeals to coffee-based spirits users.”
Liqueur stalwart Jägermeister also joined the coffee spirits category in January 2020 with its Jägermeister Cold Brew Coffee liqueur ($25 a 750-ml.), a line extension that was “something our consumers took to immediately,” according to brand meister Willy Shine. “Jägermeister Cold Brew Coffee is for a variety of consumers, including shot lovers, coffee enthusiasts, and Jägermeister fans. We have seen that uptick in coffee-flavored liqueurs and spirits, and it has been interesting to see consumers sample the various offerings. The expression really offers a new take on a coffee-infused spirit, and our consumers are coming back for more because it’s not like anything else on the market.”
Vodka brands with a flavor focus are also taking advantage of the coffee trend. Skyy Infusions Cold Brew Coffee ($14 a 750-ml.) launched as a limited-edition label in April 2019. At the time of the launch, brand owner Campari America noted that “cold brew coffee is red-hot and quickly becoming a new American classic, a staple of a brunch-focused generation.”
Tequila is also showing itself as a natural fit for coffee flavors, with offerings like Cabo Wabo Diablo Coffee liqueur. Patrón has marketed Patrón XO Café liqueur ($20 a 750-ml.) for nearly three decades. Over the past decade, with coffee consumption on the rise, Patrón extended the line with Patrón XO Café Dark Cocoa and Patrón XO Café Incendio, a chile chocolate liqueur. “Coffee and spirits have always had natural synergies between their complex yet complementary flavor profiles,” says Patrón vice president of marketing Adrian Parker. “Thanks to the Tequila base, the taste is dry, not sweet as with most low-proof coffee liqueurs.”
Some of the most compelling coffee-infused options are coming from the craft sector, where whiskey-based offerings are leading. At Buster’s Liquors & Wine in Memphis, among the largest sellers are Grind Espresso Shot ($19 a 750-ml.), AM-PM Coffee Bourbon ($30), and Sugarlands Distilling Co.’s Appalachian Sipping Cream Dark Chocolate Coffee ($20). Co-owner Josh Hammond sees potential for more brands in the coffee-infused sector, given the positive customer reception of some recent brand launches. “Coffee is a major flavor in American cuisine, and personally speaking, I feel there are plenty of expressions yet to be discovered, especially in higher-alcohol spirits,” he says.
Arpit Patel, owner of Baramor restaurant and bar in Newton, Massachusetts, sees plenty of demand for coffee flavors in his cocktail offerings. One popular drink this winter has been the Pep In Your Step ($12), made with Patrón XO Café, Baileys Irish cream, house-made coffee-infused simple syrup, and Bittermans Hellfire Habanero bitters. Patel uses various coffee-infused bottled spirits but also makes his own. “We’ve been working on house-infusing some espresso bean vodkas for one of our next cocktail creations,” he says. “Coffee and espresso has always been popular on its own so it’s a tremendous opportunity to add some creativity to this market with our own bar program.”
As for the bottled coffee-inspired spirits, Patel has seen success with a number of brands and is open to experimenting with more. “We’ve learned these products aren’t usually called for by name but when you throw it onto a cocktail, they fly.”
Steve Carpentier, general manager of Livingston, New Jersey-based Bottle King, which has 15 locations, also is open to new brands—depending on price point and brand name. The biggest sellers at his stories currently skew toward larger brand names, including Jameson Cold Brew ($30 a 750-ml.), Patrón XO Café ($24), and Van Gogh Espresso vodka ($26).
Coffee flavors are also resonating in the burgeoning ready-to-drink (RTD) category. Kahlúa’s lineup of RTD options—which also includes Kahlúa Espresso Martini and Nitro Cold Brew—depleted 110,000 9-liter cases in 2019, according to Impact Databank.
Agave Loco’s Frappa Chata is another prominent example of a successful coffee-infused RTD. The brand hit the market in 2017 and continues to make strides. The 12.5% abv offering blends coffee with the company’s flagship RumChata cream liqueur.
The coffee trend penetrated beer long ago, where coffee-infused or -flavored craft brands run the gamut. “Most breweries make one at some point or another every year, usually stouts, because those have coffee notes already due to the roasted malts used to brew darker beers,” says Bottle King’s Carpentier. “We have seen more coffee-infused lighter beers in the past five years or so. Coffee pale ales and cream ales are now more common than they used to be.”
Malt-based coffee drinks are also growing. “Another trend we’ve seen in the past couple of years has been hard iced coffee,” Carpentier adds. “Pabst came out with PBR Hard Coffee ($9 a 4-pack of 12-ounce cans) in 2019, and a few other brands have released hard iced coffees within the last year or two. PBR Hard Coffee sold out a few times when it first arrived in our stores.” Another popular brand in that genre is Newground ($9), imported from Holland.
In Memphis, Buster’s has success with the Got To Get Up To Get Down Coffee Milk stout ($11 a 6-pack of 355-ml. cans) from local brewery Wiseacre. “The brand rules in the coffee-flavored category and beyond,” Hammond says. “Wiseacre has three of the top five beers at Buster’s, and this coffee-flavored label comes in at No. 4 of all beer sold, including domestics.” Other coffee-flavored craft beer brands popular at Buster’s include local brand Ghost River Grind-n-Shine coffee cream ale ($86 a 19.8-liter keg), Founders Breakfast stout ($10 a 4-pack of 355-ml. bottles), and Maine Beer Fall Coffee stout ($9 a 500-ml.).
Many coffee-infused spirits brands enjoy popularity in both the on- and off-premise, with the latter taking the lead over the past year due to pandemic-related shutdowns and restrictions. Mr. Black was “80% on-premise by design” ahead of the pandemic, appearing on more than 1,000 cocktail menus, according to Baker. Today, he says, the brand is 80% off-premise.
St. George Nola Coffee liqueur had a roughly 50-50 split ahead of the pandemic. While Smith says the brand has been able to make up much of the lost restaurant and bar volume through increased sales at retail, the on-premise vibrancy is missed. “There have been brilliant bartenders out there that have created things with Nola that I couldn’t ever have imagined,” Smith says. “I think there are a lot of folks looking for the time when they can get back out there. With that said, I do believe there will be some carryover where folks now have a terrific bar at home, and they’re probably going to keep those bars. So we expect an explosion on-premise, but that off-premise opportunity will still have some legs.”
With limited access to the on-premise, individual consumers are upping their cocktail game, Jägermeister’s Shine notes. “This year has been a bit crazy, but overall we’ve been thrilled to see our consumers get creative at home and create their own moments with Jägermeister Cold Brew Coffee,” he says.
For all the excitement surrounding cocktails, many producers say the most likely consumption of many of the coffee-infused spirits one the market is simply on the rocks or neat. And as coffee’s popularity is showing no signs of waning, producers are betting that the best of these products will continue to make gains—but as with any category that has seen numerous new product launches, some brands will fade. “We’re starting to see the good products survive, and those that aren’t as good start to fall off,” Hletko of F.E.W. Spirits says.
“We see an explosion of these things,” agrees St. George’s Smith. “Some of them will have legs and keep running and really help to develop the category, and other ones will come and go.”
Mr. Black is one of the many brands intent on staying in and pushing the category to new levels. “We’re not stopping until we’ve achieved our vision of elevating the status of coffee in the spirits industry and taken a meaningful slice of the category,” Baker says. “Fundamentally, coffee deserves better than what has been on offer.”