The Best Coffee Liqueur for the Perfect White Russian

Published ~ April 5th, 2021 | Updated ~ April 6th, 2021
Author ~ Riley Taylor

The nectar of life. Go-go juice. Wake up water. I need it in the morning, and I love it in cocktails at night. Recently, thanks to Steve the Bartender and Mr. Black's Coffee Cocktail Challenge, Carl and I were introduced to Mr. Black Cold Brew Coffee Liqueur, and it changed my nighttime bean juice consumption forever.

After using it to play around with several coffee cocktails, we realized we needed a side-by-side comparison. Does Mr. Black hold up against other major players in the market? What is the best coffee liqueur?

What is Coffee Liqueur?

Coffee liqueur is the perfect combination of morning and nighttime beverages. It is a, usually sweet, combination of coffee and a spirit. Most often, these flavored spirits are enjoyed as a digestif or in a dessert cocktail. Kahlua and Tia Maria dominate the market, but there a wide variety of choices from other top-selling brands and small distilleries.

3 coffee liqueurs

What is in a White Russian?

The White Russian is a decadent, classic cocktail that uses only three ingredients:

  • Coffee Liqueur
  • Vodka
  • Heavy Cream

Like most cocktails, each component in the recipe varies as much as the person making it. Some people use half-and-half or whole milk instead of heavy cream. Some people omit the dairy component and make a Black Russian cocktail. Usually, the drink is served in a rocks glass over ice.

How To Make a White Russian Cocktail

Ingredients

  • 1 oz vodka
  • 2 oz coffee liqueur
  • 1 oz heavy whipping cream

Instructions

  1. Place an ice cube in your glass
  2. Pour in vodka
  3. Pour in coffee liqueur
  4. Slowly pour heavy whipping cream in top, to give a layer effect

Does a White Russian Taste Good?

If you like coffee and ice cream, you're going to enjoy a White Russian cocktail. The drink is delightfully sweet without being sickeningly so. If you're looking for a boozy dessert, there's no better choice, in my opinion.

Coffee Personalities

Rarely will you find two people with the same palate for coffee. So, naturally, we had to put a team together for this tasting session. We enlisted our friends Tyler and Emily Cawiezell of the YouTube channels Cawiezell Crew and Never EmTy Bottle. (EMily...TYler...EmTy...get it?)

When it comes to coffee:

  • I, personally, will drink my bean juice no matter what's in it or what temperature it's served. But my favorite is steaming, but not so hot that it burns your tongue and has a splash of cream, no sugar.
  • Tyler drinks his with a bit of cream and sugar but will drink it black from time to time.
  • Carl prefers cold espresso drinks and generous amounts of flavored creamer.
  • Emily is not a java drinker, but she usually chooses a latte or has a lot of cream and sugar when she does drink it.

With the four of us, we felt we could cover quite a spread of coffee preferences.

Kahlua: The #1 Seller

Kahlua Specs:

  • Country of Origin: Mexico
  • ABV: 20%
  • Base Spirit: Rum
  • Coffee Beans: 100% Arabica
  • Dietary Specifications: Acceptable for a gluten-free diet, Not suitable for a vegan diet, Not Kosher certified

kahlua bottle

Kahlua Tasting Notes

Kahlua is an exceptionally drinkable and very sweet liqueur. It had the lowest alcohol by volume of the three spirits we tried, which somehow made it syrupy. The liquor finishes with a subtle coffee flavor that is overwhelmed by sugar.

Kahlua White Russian

The traditional White Russian cocktail has been made with Kahlua since the mid-1950's. The beverage's popularity surged after the release of the movie The Big Lebowski, during which The Dude specifically requests Kahlua to make himself a White Russian. This is the sweetest version of the cocktail, with faint coffee flavor. I think this version tastes more like a milkshake than any of the others.

kahlua bottle and white russian

Tia Maria: The Most Sophisticated Coffee Liqueur

Tia Maria Specs

  • Country of Origin: Spain
  • ABV: 26.5%
  • Base Spirit: Jamaican Rum
  • Coffee Beans: 100% Arabica
  • Dietary Specifications: Vegan, Gluten-free

tia maria bottle

Tia Maria Tasting Notes

Tia Maria smells and tastes more like coffee than Kahlua and has a nice hint of vanilla. There is a more prominent ethanol flavor, but not so much that it's overwhelming or unpleasant. Think boozy, not the burn of alcohol. The texture of Tia Maria is pleasing and less syrupy than Kahlua. Overall the Tia Maria is satisfyingly sweet with deliciously rich coffee flavor.

Tia Maria White Russian

The Tia Maria White Russian we made was the most neutral for most of the flavors we examined. This cocktail was the Baby Bear to our Goldilocks: not too sugary, not too bitter, and not too boozy. It was just right, and the vanilla flavor was a nice little bonus. It was less coffee forward than the Mr. Black version.

tia maria bottle and white russian

Mr. Black Cold Brew Coffee Liqueur: The World's Best Coffee Liqueur

Mr. Black Specs

  • Country of Origin: Australia
  • ABV: 25%
  • Base Spirit: Australian Wheat Vodka
  • Coffee Beans: 100% Arabica
  • Other: Vegan, Ethically sourced, Kosher, Gluten-free

mr black bottle

Mr. Black Tasting Notes

Mr. Black's website says they use half the sugar and ten times the coffee concentration of other similar spirits. And you know what? It smells and tastes like you've got a cup of dark roast coffee in your hands, but like, if you added a splash of vodka to it. Mr. Black is by far the most bitter, robust, coffee-forward of the three liqueurs we tried.

Mr. Black White Russian

A White Russian made with Mr. Black has big coffee flavor. The vodka and coffee liqueur blend together because the vodka in Mr. Black adds to the vodka in the recipe. It is less sweet than the traditional recipe and has chocolatey flavor notes. This White Russian cocktail was still enjoyable for someone who only likes their coffee in the form of sweet drink like a latte.

mr black bottle and white russian

What is the BEST Coffee Liqueur?

Putting the title of "Best" on a coffee liqueur is problematic because it's such a subjective assessment. Every person's palate is different, so what I say is the best might not be for someone like Emily. Carl, Tyler, and I agree that Mr. Black Cold Brew Coffee Liqueur is the best option we tried in our experiment. That's simply because of the balanced sweetness. And it tastes like real coffee.

But, I can also understand why Emily preferred Tia Maria. The subtle vanilla flavor in with the coffee and the little extra sweetness suits someone who isn't as big of a coffee drinker. Tia Maria is the perfect middle ground between sweetened coffee drinks and a cup of joe.

Collectively, we all felt Kahlua was a little too sugary. The syrupy texture and flavor overpowered the robust coffee taste we wanted. But Kahlua it's still my dad's favorite because he's the type that likes a little coffee with his sugar.

3 coffee liqueurs and 3 white russians

What is the Best Coffee Liqueur for a White Russian?

Like with coffee itself, the best coffee liqueur for White Russians absolutely comes down to personal preference. If you're looking for dessert, using Kahlua in the recipe is the sweetest option. Maybe the coffee flavor is what you prefer? Then Mr. Black is the way to go. Tia Maria is the perfect middle ground, giving you the sweetness and the rich coffee flavor.

Whatever White Russian cocktail you choose, you're going to get a creamy, decadent beverage that'll satisfy any sugar craving. The taste differences are subtle enough that I would be happy to drink any one of the three if I ordered a White Russian in a bar. Drink your White Russian however you choose, because you know what's best for you. As The Dude would say, “Yeah, well, you know, that’s just, like, your opinion, man.”