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The Secret Life of Mexican Kahlúa

Essential Cold War Cocktail Ingredient, Mid-Century Guilty Pleasure, Late 90s Movie Star

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All images courtesy of Kahlua unless otherwise noted

When you think Kahlúa, you probably think about a White Russian.

A mixture of vodka, coffee liqueur, and cream on the rocks; for many, it’s a guilty pleasure of a drink. Essentially an alcoholic iced coffee, it was rocketed to renewed popularity thanks to The Big Lebowski, in which it’s The Dude’s drink of choice.

Though cocktail lore is often debated, it seems likely that the Black Russian came first, created in the late 1940s as a bespoke drink by Gustave Tops, at the Hotel Metropole in Belgium for Perle Mesta, who was the U.S. Ambassador to Luxembourg at the time.

Apparently Perle was quite a woman, known in Washington for her soirees filled with the political elite and rumored to be the inspiration for the lead in Irving Berlin’s Call Me Madam. At some point, most argue for the mid-50s, someone added cream.

The vodka explains the drink name, a particularly sexy choice for the beginning of the Cold War, but it doesn’t encompass the rich cultural origins of the other Black Russian ingredient: Kahlúa.

This iconic liqueur was invented in the 1930s in Veracruz, Mexico. Originally, made with rum and coffee (both local to the region) and mingled with caramel and vanilla flavors. The formula has changed a bit in the intervening years, with a host of other ingredients adding complexity, but the foundation remains the same.

Four men started the company, but it was the all-female leadership team that had the brand turning heads in the 1960s. (Something that would, unfortunately, still make the news even today in the alcohol world.)

Kahlúa came to America for the first time in 1940, where people embraced it as the perfect after-dinner drink, a boozy drizzle over ice cream, or a way to punch up a cheesecake. It quickly became the best selling coffee liqueur in the world and a staple on nearly every bar.  

With the rise of the craft cocktail and a turn away from ingredients like high-fructose corn syrup, many craft cocktail bartenders find the liqueur unsophisticated, but Dylan Duncan McRae, bartender at Hundred Proof in Hillcrest, is intrigued by the possibilities it offers.

“I love how versatile Kahlúa can be behind the bar. We are seeing a resurgence in classic ingredients used in creative ways. Coffee liqueur can lend a hand in stirred, creamy, and citrus-forward drinks, especially paired with aged spirits like rum, bourbon, and cognac. You can substitute the Kahlúa and cream sherry for sweet vermouth in a Manhattan, and it holds up nicely. There are also a classic Tiki cocktails where Coffee lends a hand. Specifically here in San Diego, we have the Mr. Bali Hai cocktail. And in Fort Lauderdale at the Mai-Kai they have the Black Magic. Both drinks marry citrus, coffee, and rum.”

And at the end of the day, for Rae, Kahlua offers an unmistakable, nostalgic flavor. “I remember as a child my father would let us put Kahlúa on top of our vanilla ice cream,” he said “We were raised in a Mexican neighborhood, and Mexican flavors became a part of our lives.”

Kahlúa came to America for the first time in 1940, where people embraced it as the perfect after-dinner drink, a boozy drizzle over ice cream, or a way to punch up a cheesecake. It quickly became the best selling coffee liqueur in the world and a staple on nearly every bar.  

With the rise of the craft cocktail and a turn away from ingredients like high-fructose corn syrup, many craft cocktail bartenders find the liqueur unsophisticated, but Dylan Duncan McRae, bartender at Hundred Proof in Hillcrest, is intrigued by the possibilities it offers.

“I love how versatile Kahlúa can be behind the bar. We are seeing a resurgence in classic ingredients used in creative ways. Coffee liqueur can lend a hand in stirred, creamy, and citrus-forward drinks, especially paired with aged spirits like rum, bourbon, and cognac. You can substitute the Kahlúa and cream sherry for sweet vermouth in a Manhattan, and it holds up nicely. There are also a classic Tiki cocktails where Coffee lends a hand. Specifically here in San Diego, we have the Mr. Bali Hai cocktail. And in Fort Lauderdale at the Mai-Kai they have the Black Magic. Both drinks marry citrus, coffee, and rum.”

And at the end of the day, for Rae, Kahlua offers an unmistakable, nostalgic flavor. “I remember as a child my father would let us put Kahlúa on top of our vanilla ice cream,” he said “We were raised in a Mexican neighborhood, and Mexican flavors became a part of our lives.”

ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTORS
Cara Strickland
Although she started out in the wine industry, Cara Strickland was converted to cocktails by a Corpse Reviver No. 2. Now, you’ll rarely find her...
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