Usually, when it comes to liqueurs, the first instinct is to treat them as a sweet ending to a meal. But liqueurs are so much more than just dessert-style stickies.
This is particularly true of coffee-based liqueurs, which have become increasingly diverse and complex. It’s not a coincidence that this has happened in tandem with the rise of high-end coffee culture. A growing number of liqueur producers now volunteer information about where their coffee beans are sourced and/or roasted, particularly when there’s a local tie, while others reference specific coffee preparation styles, such as espresso, ristretto or New Orleans-style chicory coffee.
At the same time, cocktail culture has had its own impact on this category. Italy’s bitter amaros are finding plenty of fans these days—and a subgenre of new “coffee amaro” hybrids (Caffè Amaro, Lucano Caffè) is likely to find fans as well. It makes sense that this crossover category is percolating right now—after all, the natural bitterness of coffee is compatible with bitter amaros.
Liqueurs are so much more than just dessert-style stickies.
Speaking of bitter, let’s not forget about nut-based liqueurs, particularly the burgeoning nocino category, made with walnuts. Although many nutty liqueurs are rich and toothsome, nocino artfully mixes the bitter with the sweet. Like amaro, nocino also has roots in Italian heritage, although a growing number of American producers are making nocino bottlings too. Producers harvest still-green walnuts to create a liqueur that offers warming sweetness and spice tempered by light bitterness and a tannic edge.
Of course, not everyone is seeking bitterness in their post-prandial liqueurs; in fact, most people relish their sweet treats. And plenty of traditional-style sweet sippers still abound, whether you’re seeking a silky cream liqueur to top up coffee or the nutty lusciousness of fudgy hazelnut or amaretto to pour alongside (or into) a dessert. Whichever style you prefer, it’s heartening to see how the liqueur category is continuing to expand and embrace new flavor profiles. And there’s nothing bittersweet about that.
Caffè Amaro (USA; J. Rieger and Company, Kansas City, MO); $30, 31% abv, 95 points. Ideal for mixing nuanced cocktails that don’t taste like dessert, this bittersweet coffee-based amaro offers a mix of almond, chocolate and coffee, finishing with cardamom and bitter orange peel complexity. Made with coffee from Kansas City roaster Thou Mayest, and briefly barrel aged.
Lucano Caffé (Italy; Domaine Select Wine Estates, New York, NY), $27, 26% abv, 94 points. This “coffee amaro” has a deep, dark hue and enticing, sweet scent that suggests hazelnuts and root beer. On palate, the liquid is thick and viscous, with a mild espresso flavor that eases into a pleasing roots-and-bark finish shot through with clove spice. Mix into cocktails any place amaro would go.
Moonlight Expresso Coffee Liqueur (USA; Marble Distilling Co., Carbondale, CO); $34, 28% abv, 92 points. Sip or mix this dessert-worthy liqueur. It looks and smells like co ee. On the palate, it’s viscous and quite sweet, suggesting co ee with milk and sugar, nish- ing with rich hints of milk chocolate, Nutella and cinnamon.
Don Ciccio & Figli Nocino (USA; Don Ciccio & Figli, Washington, DC); $36, 29% abv, 92 points. Deep brown in the glass, this walnut liqueur o ers a pleasing dark chocolate scent and eeting sweetness on the pal- ate, perked up by a lightly spicy, tingly exit that sug- gests ancho chili. Ideal to add spice and mild sweet- ness to whiskey or brandy drinks.
Nocino from Watershed Distillery (USA; Watershed Distillery, Columbus, OH); $30/375ml, 24% abv, 92 points. This inky, opaque walnut liqueur has a mild scent and drying, tannic palate that suggests unsweetened chocolate, blackberry and prune. It comes alive on the finish, showing orange peel, vanilla bean and baking spice. Sip as a refreshing digestif. Made with Ohio black walnuts in a vodka base.
Cardinal Spirits Walnut Nocino (USA; Cardinal Spirits, Bloomington, IN); $30/375ml, 40% abv, 90 points. This is an amaro-lover’s nocino, with an herbal-vanilla scent that evokes sarsaparilla and an herbal, root-y flavor up front and a distinctly nutty richness smoothing the finish. Made with green walnuts steeped in a vodka base, sweetened with Indiana maple syrup.