There are plenty of different ways to get that coffee flavor in a cocktail. There’s cold brew, which is a way to impart a concentrated coffee kick (as in one of my faves, Lost Lake’s “A Lonely Island Lost in the Middle of a Foggy Sea“). There’s brewed coffee (used either hot or cold). And then there’s coffee liqueur or coffee-flavored brandy, which I’ve seen less often in cocktails – maybe because the wide range of flavors makes it hard to consistently mix with.
Today I’m focusing in on coffee-flavored alcohols. In one corner, we’ve got an interesting lower-shelf take on the concept, in the form of Allen’s Coffee Flavored Brandy. In the other corner, Rhine Hall’s Coffee Liqueur, which cost quite a bit more (about $30 for a 375ml bottle, compared to Allen’s sub-$20 750ml bottle).
Allen’s Coffee Flavored Brandy
Allen’s seems to be bit a local obsession in Maine, which is why I made sure to pick it up while I was visiting a few months back. Formerly the best-selling liquor in Maine, Allen’s has lost some ground in recent years, but still moves lots of bottles. It seems to occupy a similar niche in the northeast as Malört does in Chicago, although it’s certainly easier to drink.
The brandy itself is 30% ABV, and “prepared and bottled” by Allen’s Ltd., meaning it is almost-assuredly contract distilled. With admirable transparency, they note on the bottle that caramel coloring is added. It’s flavored with coffee extract.
Allen’s smells and tastes about what you’d expect. It has a slightly acidic, dark coffee scent. This translates to a very strong coffee flavor that is also very sweet, and has the type of burn you’d expect at this price point. It’s not unpleasant to drink, but you’ve got to be ready for a very sweet, very concentrated flavor.
Rhine Hall Coffee Liqueur
Rhine Hall is a distillery out of Chicago that concentrates on fruit brandies. I’ve had pretty mixed feelings about their stuff in the past, but it might just be my sense of taste. The upshot of all this, though, is that the Rhine Hall Coffee Liqueur is also a brandy, so we’re comparing apples to apples in that regard. Rhine Hall’s Coffee Liqueur incorporates coffee concentrate, demerara sugar, and vanilla beans, and it’s bottled at 32% ABV. I found out after the fact (via Rhine Hall’s website) that this product was originally released in collaboration with Alinea, which I guess makes it the fancy choice.
The first time I tried this it was right after drinking the Allen’s, and I couldn’t even make out the coffee notes. I came back to it after a short break, and was rewarded with a more subtle coffee aroma and flavor than the Allen’s with prominent fruity notes that I’m guessing are from apple brandy as a base. The vanilla came on at the end, and provided a pleasant closing note.
These are two very different products. Comparing them helps to highlight what is unique about each one, and makes it obvious how the broad category of “coffee liqueur” can house a lot of variation. Allen’s is a solid value, enjoyable, and probably powerful enough to overwhelm many cocktail recipes. Rhine Hall delivers a more subtle, nuanced coffee liqueur, and one which probably has more mixing potential – but you’re going to pay for it. As long as you know what you’re getting into, you’re not going to go wrong with either of these.