Coffee Liqueur 101: Everything You Need to Know

Smooth and sultry, coffee liqueur lends itself to after-dinner cocktails, coffee drinks, and even desserts. This sweet coffee-flavored spirit is one every coffee lover should know.

A bottle of Kahlua, rum and coffee liqueur, sits on a marble surface with a silver cocktail jigger

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Coffee lovers and cocktail enthusiasts need to know all about coffee liqueur! It is the star ingredient of numerous cocktails.

It’s a delectable beverage that beautifully combines the richness of coffee with the smoothness of alcohol. Whether you’re a fan of coffee or simply appreciate a well-crafted cocktail, coffee liqueur offers an enticing array of flavors to captivate your taste buds.

Below we will explore the origins, taste, cocktails, serving suggestions and culinary pairings of this smooth spirit.

More spirit guides: Irish WhiskeyIrish CreamChambordCrème de CacaoCrème de Menthe

A rocks glass with heavy cream swirling into coffee liqueur and vodka.

What is coffee liqueur?

Coffee liqueur is a sweet, coffee-based spirit with a deep brown color and is a common ingredient in many dessert drinks. Coffee is the hero ingredient, bringing scents of bittersweet coffee bean into every sip. 

Also referred to as Kahlua, a brand name, it is made by infusing a base spirit, usually vodka or rum, with coffee beans and sugar. The result is a silky smooth dark-colored liqueur packed with delicious coffee flavor.

It can be stirred into coffee for a boozy kick, mixed into cocktails or enjoyed on its own. It is also a popular ingredient in baking recipes, lending the classic coffee flavor of Kahlúa to all kinds of desserts and treats.

Why you’ll love coffee liqueur

  • Coffee liqueur is smooth, silky and sweet, with lots of coffee flavor.
  • It’s delicious over ice, mixed into cocktails or stirred into coffee.
  • You can even bake with it!
baby guinness shots served on a green ceramic tray

Top brands

Several brands produce coffee-flavored liqueur: 

  • The most famous is Kahlúa coffee liqueur, a Mexican spirit made with rum and 100 percent Arabica coffee beans. Owned by Pernod Ricard since 2005, it is the number-one-selling coffee liqueur in the world.
  • Another popular brand is Tia Maria, which is a Jamaican liqueur made from rum, sugar and Blue Mountain beans.
  • Mr Black Cold Brew Coffee Liqueur is another to try — it’s made with a vodka base, not rum.  
  • Other brands of alcohol have coffee-flavored liqueurs to try. Irish whiskey brand Jameson carries Jameson Cold Brew Whiskey & Coffee.
  • Coffee-flavored tequila has a slight kick too. Patron XO Café was discontinued, but Cantera Negra is the perfect addition to this lineup of coffee liqueurs. 
a bottle of homemade coffee liqueur

How to make coffee liqueur

Making homemade coffee liqueur is simple to do — it’s a pretty easy recipe. Use the finest ingredients you can afford to make my homemade Kahlua recipe. You will need coffee, a spirit, a sweetener and a hint of vanilla. 

  1. You will start with a base spirit, such as vodka or rum. You could also experiment with whiskey and tequila, too.
  2. Then you’ll combine it with fresh coffee and let the flavors marinate for a few days to infuse the flavors.
  3. Lastly, you’ll sweeten it with sugar or simple syrup and flavor it with vanilla extract. You could use vanilla syrup or brown sugar syrup to yield lots of flavor. 

What’s so great about making your own? You can use your favorite coffee beans and pure ingredients to yield a liqueur you love.

A mini bottle of Kahlua being poured into a mug of hot chocolate.

How to drink coffee liqueur

A sweet spirit, coffee liqueur is easy to sip straight or on the rocks, or you can mix it into drinks.

If you like a boozy coffee, you can add a little bit to your cup of joe or cold brew to add some slight sweetness.

It’s also a great addition to hot chocolate, whether you make a big batch or just one cup with a hot cocoa bomb.

A festive martini with chocolate drizzle sits beside long, sugar-coated pastries on a marble surface

Cooking with coffee liqueur

Kahlua is a delicious addition to dessert recipes, bringing in the bitter flavors of black coffee to pair with sweetness. It also carries delicate notes of vanilla bean, which helps it to pair particularly well with chocolate and coffee flavors. 

This classic liqueur is sometimes used in lieu of Marsala wine in tiramisu, a coffee-flavored Italian dessert. (I also use it in my tiramisu martini!)

Try it in Kahlua browniesKahlua cheesecake or chocolate Kahlua cupcakes.

two black Russian cocktails on a white background with a bottle of coffee liqueur

Cocktails with Kahlua

Coffee liqueur is a staple of many beloved cocktails, lending its sweet, silky flavor. It is most often paired with vodka cocktails:

  • Most famously, Kahlua coffee liqueur is used in the sophisticated White Russian cocktail. It adds its mocha flavor to cream and vodka, creating an adult chocolate milk. There’s also the Black Russian, which is made without the dairy element.
  • Then there’s the White Russian’s sister, the Colorado Bulldog, a popular drink that shares all the same mouthwatering flavor with a splash of cola.
  • It is also a key ingredient in the popular and edgy espresso martini, a coffee cocktail made with vodka and real, fresh-brewed espresso.
  • It’s also used in the Mudslide, a dessert drink made with Irish cream, vodka and cream.

But this coffee spirit works with other spirits as well in a variety of cocktails. For example, a splash of it is used in the bourbon-based coffee old-fashioned.

It works as the only spirit in a drink, too. The Tootsie Roll cocktail pairs coffee liqueur with root beer, to make a drink that tastes just like the candy of the same name.

You can also stir this smooth liqueur into hot coffee, cold brew coffee, hot cocoas and affogatos. You can even drizzle it over vanilla ice cream or enjoy it in a boozy Coke float.

Coffee liqueur is poured from its bottle into a sundae glass atop ice cream with other garnishes and tools in background


How should I drink coffee liqueur?

You can mix coffee liqueur into cocktails or stir it into coffee or hot chocolate. You can also enjoy it neat or on the rocks, and sip it on its own. But be wary of cheaper brands that may be too sweet or have an artificial coffee flavor.

Is Kahlua the same as Baileys?

Kahlua and Baileys are two brands of dessert liqueurs. Kahlua is a brand of coffee liqueur. Made with rum, it is dark in color and has a strong, sweet coffee flavor. On the other hand, Baileys is a brand of Irish cream liqueur. It is a light brown cream liqueur with a base of Irish whiskey. Its flavor includes hints of vanilla, chocolate and coffee. Both can be mixed into cocktails or be sipped on their own.

What percent of alcohol is in Kahlua?

Kahlua is 20% ABV (alcohol by volume), meaning that the alcohol content is somewhat low, especially when compared to hard liquors like whiskey or rum, which are around 40% ABV.

More coffee liqueur recipes

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