Once dominated by a couple of major brands, the coffee liqueur sub-category has undergone a revolution in recent years, with new products, provenance and serves, finds Laura Foster.

There was a boom in coffee liqueurs about five years ago when they really became popular and we saw a lot of smaller brands coming on to the scene,” recalls Dawn Davies MW, head buyer at The Whisky Exchange. So what has caused this proliferation?

Davies points to a few key factors: “The trend was driven in part by the interest in coffee, but also by brands such as Patrón XO Cafe, which became very popular. The Espresso Martini also helped to fuel the trend.”

The crossing over of the Espresso Martini into mainstream consumer consciousness does appear to
be playing a part. “It’s the most consumed drink in our house apart from the Martini,” declares Jenny Griffiths, co-founder of Distill + Fill bottled cocktails, which makes an Espresso Martini ready-to-drink product.

“And it’s moving beyond the UK, where it was created – we’ve got lots of friends who run bars in the States and they’re suddenly getting orders in for 20 Espresso Martinis at a time. Our Espresso Martini is one of our bestsellers.”

BREAKING NEW GROUND

Coffee liqueur producers are becoming increasingly innovative in their approach. One of the first artisanal coffee liqueurs to launch was Conker Cold Brew in 2016, which was the second product to come from the Dorset distillery after its gin.

“We basically bring that barista experience you get from hot coffees, so the quality, the ethics and the provenance, and we bring that to coffee liqueur and coffee cocktails,” explains Rupert Holloway, head conkerer at, ahem, Conker Distillery.

“We launched a coffee liqueur as our second product, because we saw that every other spirits category had a premium craft alternative to the mainstream brands. In gin certainly there was this level of provenance of the ingredients and the ethics behind how it’s all made, but when it came to coffee liqueur, that seemed to be all brushed over, and it was all about coffee imitation and super-sweet, thickened product. So we launched the first cold brew coffee that didn’t use a single flavouring or thickener, and we also work with really sustainable coffee.”

Since then, Conker has launched a decaf version of its liqueur, and even partners with different coffee roasters to create limited-edition versions.

The base of a liqueur can be a big selling point. “Off the back of Patrón XO Cafe pulling out of the market we have seen a big increase in agave-based coffee liqueurs,” says Davies. Some of the big names here include Cazcabel and Vivir tequilas, which are capitalising on the gap Patrón left.

Some brands are even exploring different cask finishes. New brand Café Solo uses a cold brew concentrate called Solo Coffee to flavour its liqueur, and already has a range of limited editions planned.

“Throughout 2024 and beyond, we’re thrilled to introduce the Café Solo Cask series, where our unique blend is carefully finished in a variety of premium casks previously home to wines and spirits like sherry, whisky and Cognac,” says Holly Harwood, Café Solo brand manager.

As UK consumers become increasingly well educated in coffee, its provenance and different ways to brew and consume it, so the interest in coffee-based alcohol grows. It appears the UK, and indeed the world, has woken up to its potential.