Plain vodka has flavor. Let’s get that out of the way before someone feels the need to send me an email pontificating about the subtle flavors of plain vodka when this article is dedicated to pontificating about a particular type of flavored vodka. Connoisseurs sometimes refer to the subtle flavors of plain vodka as the character of the vodka. This character comes from the base materials (potato, beets, wheat, sugar, pumpkin, fruits, or whatever else a country has lying around) and the filtering methodology (charcoal, quartz, cloth, etc.) Then, after the distillation, flavoring can be added… and for the purposes of this article, the important flavor is coffee.
Given that coffee connoisseurs are similarly sensitive to various tastes, it is certainly possible that someone, somewhere could tell you whether the coffee flavoring in your coffee flavored vodka is, in fact, from a Fair Trade, shade-grown, coffee farm in Southern Ethiopia… probably a peaberry, roasted in the Seattle style. But I’m not that person; and this isn’t that kind of article.
Coffee Vodka vs. Vodka Coffee
Coffee Vodka is not the same as vodka coffee. Coffee flavored vodka is clear in color, and the coffee has been added prior to the distillation process. Vodka coffee is usually brown in color because the distilled vodka is added to the coffee after the fact. Two companies throw this otherwise simple distinction off-kilter because they add coloring to the coffee flavored vodka in order to make it more appealing to the customer… which may be a marketing ploy. Some afficionados say that the caramel color actually disrupts the taste, but I leave that disagreement to the distillers, vodka connoisseurs, and customer focus groups.
The History of Coffee Vodka
Some sort of Vodka has existed since the 8th century, it was widely available in the area now called Russia in the 13th and 14th century. Since the early middle ages had poor quality control measures and factories didn’t exist, this early stuff was really harsh, which probably led to the addition of flavorings. Sometime between the 14th and 16th centuries, “gin” was born in the area around modern France. In many ways, gin is the same basic distilled alcohol as vodka, with the addition of flavorings from the juniper bush. So the concept of adding flavoring to vodka is not new, but it still took a while before the coffee craze met up with the vodka craze. Distilleries finally got around to producing really high-grade vodka in Russia in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
After World War II, in the 1950s, Vodka became a major hit in the US after the ad men at Smirnoff (an American brand) brilliantly concocted the “Smirnoff leaves you breathless” campaign, which intimated that vodka couldn’t be detected on the breath as easily as other liquors. That ad campaign was so successful that it continued until at least 1983! I think that it is safe to assume that the impression of vodka as a stealthy potable had a bit to do with the archetypal three martini lunch. Eventually vodka held the largest market share of all of the spirits.
“Smirnoff leaves you breathless”
In the 1980s, US liquor consumers had Cold-War, patriotic sensibilities. As tensions between the superpowers rose in early 1980s (due to events such as the Flight 007 fiasco), Russian brand Vodka (like Stoli) and even those with Russian names (like Smirnoff) declined. This was probably a major contributor to the rise of Sweden-based Absolut Vodka, which premiered in the US in 1979. It didn’t hurt that Absolut also had brilliant and iconic ad campaigns such as the Andy Warhol and Keith Haring campaigns. Are you getting the idea that a big part of the vodka market is actually the direct result of vodka marketing? Yeah, me too. Anyway, the explosion in flavored vodka as a fad came as a direct result of Absolut. So I give them a tip of the hat in this article even though they haven’t (yet?) produced an Absolut Coffee flavored vodka.
Who Makes Coffee Vodka? + Taste Test
I may not have a comprehensive list of all of the coffee vodka brands that exist. However, here’s a short list of spirits branded as coffee/espresso vodka.
- Vincent Van Gogh Espresso Vodka – This version has no caffeine… a topic I cover next in the section of this article. This is subtle tasting and, in my opinion, this is the best for mixing with other ingredients.
- Vincent Van Gogh Double Espresso Vodka (with 10 mg of caffeine per 50 ml) – tastes great straight up.
- Vincent Van Gogh 19/90 XXO EspreXXO Ultimo coffee flavored vodka (with 19 mg of caffeine per 50 ml) – They are making a statement with the high caffeine content here, and I can see the point, but I actually prefer adding a real shot of espresso when I am sipping a coffee martini at home.
- Seagrams Espresso Vodka – it comes in a cheap-looking bottle; this brand has made its way into the bar scene, and is sometimes the well version.
- Wild Swan Espresso Vodka made in Australia, this spirit is 40% alcohol by volume / 80 proof. I haven’t tasted this brand, but I like their logo and font choice.
- Crater Lake Hazelnut Espresso Vodka – touting an all-natural ingredients, this liqueur (50 proof) boldly takes on both Frangelico and Kahlua and is sweetened with cane sugar
- Special note: other coffee liqueurs like Tia Maria, Kahlua, and Starbucks Espresso coffee liqueur do not have vodka in their titles, so I am not really covering them in this article.
Making your Own
If none of the commercially available liquors suits your taste, you have another option: you can make your own coffee vodka. By getting the best vodka you can find and combining it with your own coffee, you can create the perfect beverage of your dreams. Remember that free-trade, shade-grown, peaberry from a coffee farm in Southern Ethiopia, roasted in the Seattle style? Have at it, my friend: make your own coffee infused vodka. And feel free to invite me over for a drink!
Coffee Vodka = Buzzed and Loaded
Want a pick-me-up in the bar? Skip the Red Bull and go Van Gogh. Van Gogh 19/90 XXO has more caffeine than an equal amount of Red Bull (125ml of Red Bull = 40 mg caffeine while 125ml of Van Gogh 19/90 XXO = 47mg of caffeine). But beware the effects of caffeine and alcohol during a heavy night of drinking. There is some disagreement whether it is OK/risky or bad/risky. There are reports of problems on various college campuses stemming from Red Bull and vodka binge drinking, but it is unclear whether the component at fault is taurine (only in Red Bull) or caffeine (in coffee vodka, coffee, Red Bull, and a lot of other things that taste good). Meanwhile, one medical study went in the opposite direction: drinking coffee every day correlates with protection against cirrhosis of the liver. Note, however, they weren’t necessarily studying folks who drank and ingested coffee simultaneously – a tragic medical oversight.
In my anecdotal observations, I tend to sum it up as follows: the alcohol gets a person drunk, stupid, and slow, while the coffee tricks a person into thinking that they have all the faculties of a quick mind. This syncretic effect is fun during a night of carousing with friends, just don’t do anything that will land you behind bars wishing you hadn’t dropped your soap.
What to do with Coffee Vodka
The good news is that you can drink coffee flavored vodka straight up. The next obvious choice is a coffee martini, or more specifically, an espresso martini. Additionally, I am having some fun substituting coffee flavored vodka in recipes that call for rum or kahlua. Try substituting some coffee vodka in my recipes for tiramisu and rumballs.
By the way…. Coffee Tequila
In a similar vein as coffee flavored vodka, is the recent introduction of coffee flavored tequila to the market. Tequila and coffee works well too. Look for Patron XO Cafe Coffee Liqueur, made with Patron Tequila. Coffee Patron XO is 70 proof (35% alcohol by volume), and has a sweeter flavor than unflavored tequila/Patron. If you want to make Mexican coffee, try substituting this coffee-flavored tequila liquor instead of the white tequila inside the recipe for Mexican Coffee.