These outstanding craft-distilled coffee liqueurs make Kahlua seem like Folgers

Photo by Tj Turner

If your last encounter with coffee liqueur was watching an elderly relative down White Russians at a family

wedding, allow me to pour out some truth: today’s coffee liqueurs and coffee-flavored cocktails aren’t just for your grandparents. Decades into coffee’s “third wave”—in which roasters and growers have proven that consumers appreciate, and will pay for, a quality product—hopes of a similar shift have distillers targeting the Kahlua crowd.

The ever-expanding craft spirits scene in Minnesota means our talented and restless distillers are experimenting with making local (and better) versions of a wide range of liqueurs, including those that are coffee-based.  

With cooler fall days on the horizon, we’re starting to crave deeper, richer, more comforting cocktails, and that means now is the perfect time to grab a… uh, cup of coffee… from one of our standout local distilleries.

Liqueur with an added kick

It might surprise you to know that, generally, coffee liqueurs are created with actual coffee beans; there’s no science-trick flavoring to achieve the coffee you taste. It also means that coffee liqueurs contain some amount of caffeine—but often far less than is contained in a cup of brewed coffee.

Many coffee liqueurs also serve up a healthy dose of sweetness; in the case of Kahlua, it’s a diabetic-coma-inducing amount. Truthfully, that’s my biggest knock against the world’s top-selling coffee liqueur—it’s so cloyingly sweet that any excitement and nuance is covered by a heaping spoonful of brown sugar. As a mixer in a cocktail, like the White Russian I mentioned before, a sweet liqueur does serve a purpose, however.

Winning local options

As an ingredient in a mixed drink, I’d suggest you try a more balanced, more interesting, locally produced coffee liqueur as opposed to a global brand. Loon Liquors’ Lac Coeur, with its chocolatey nose and hint of hazelnut, has a rich texture, an undernote of cherry, and is a great choice. Or try 11 Wells’ Coffee Liqueur, which is similar but has a slightly sweeter, caramel-brown sugar note. Both are sweeter than I prefer as standalone spirits but make excellent mixers.

If you’re looking to sip a coffee liqueur on its own or to use in a sparing recipe like an espresso martini, I recommend Du Nord Craft Spirits’ Café Frieda. In a blind taste test against the other local liqueurs I sampled, Frieda stood out for being more like cold-press coffee: a little sharper with a brighter, citrusy top note, and a more multi-dimensional overall flavor.

Meet Frieda

Like so many of us, the co-owner of Du Nord Craft Spirits, Chris Montana, experienced a rough patch growing up. The English teacher and theater director he credits with getting him through high school became the liqueur’s namesake.

“Frieda took the extra time with me and supported me like a mother,” Montana says. “She is special; but, her commitment to students is not unique. Everyone knows a ‘Frieda’ from their childhood.” For that reason, the cocktail room at Du Nord Craft Spirits offers a discount to all teachers (and only teachers).

Standout teacher, standout liqueur

Directed by Montana and his distilling team, the star of Café Frieda is locally roasted Peace Coffee, whose roastery is located about a mile away from Du Nord. The cold-brewed base was described to me as “uber coffee,” much stronger than most people would drink to ensure the flavor balances out by the time it hits the bottle.

After the cold brew rests for a day, hot-brewed chicory root (a nutty flavor that gives New Orleans coffee its unique quality) meets the coffee. On the third day of the process, high-proof alcohol distilled from Minnesota-grown corn is blended in. It all rests together for a month, followed by final quality control and bottling. There are no additives, extracts, or artificial flavorings.

All that effort pays off, in my opinion. The result is a well-balanced spirit that’s perfect on its own, in a White Russian, or in a recipe like “The Dude,” available in the Du Nord Craft Spirits cocktail room.

As fall settles in, coffee-liqueur based drinks are perfect for the season—especially those that come with a heartwarming story like this one. 

2 ounces Café Frieda
1/2 ounce of L’etoile Vodka
1/2 ounce orange liqueur (like Cointreau)
2 dashes orange bitters

Combine all ingredients in a shaker tin filled with ice; shake, strain, and serve straight up in a chilled coupe or martini glass.