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Recently, I was corresponding with a coffee company and they mentioned their bourbon infused coffee was one of their top sellers. This surprised me. If you keep tabs on a few favorite coffee roasters or get the occasional promotion coffee email, you might have noticed this trend too. More and more roasters are advertising bourbon barrel coffee programs and featuring bourbon infused coffee. 

I poked around on the internet a bit and was bombarded with companies doing bourbon coffees. You can find coffee infused with Blanton’s and Jack Daniel’s. There are even infused K-cups (these are likely done with artificial flavorings). Good Folk’s roasts a coffee for Pappy and Co. that is aged in Old Pappy barrels. 

It is not just bourbon either. Roasting companies are featuring tequila, rum, red wine, white wine and plain ol’ whiskey infused coffees. 

If you don’t know much about bourbon barrel coffees you may have a few questions: How did this bourbon and spirits infusion trend get started? What exactly is bourbon barrel coffee? Are spirit infused coffees different from flavored coffees? And maybe most importantly, does the finished product contain any alcohol? 

Let me unpack some of these questions. 

Why is Bourbon Barrel Coffee Booming (my theory)

Bourbon is everywhere nowadays— I recently watched a documentary about bourbon called Neat. Before that, there was a free Great Courses class about Bourbon that I listened to (The History of Bourbon, it was pretty interesting). The other day, I had a discussion with a coffee roaster about their bourbon infused coffee being very popular. I noticed another roaster local to me featuring three kinds of spirit infused coffees.

The message is clear, after decades of decline, bourbon is popular again. People are drinking it, collecting it, mixing it and talking about it. It would only make sense that coffee (which is having a renaissance of it own) and bourbon would find their way to crossing paths. 

It should be noted the there is also a popular coffee varietal called Bourbon. This has nothing to do with the alcohol Bourbon but derives its name from when French missionaries introduced it to Bourbon Island (now known as Réunion).

Bourbon barrel coffee hits a cultural sweet spot. Here are three things that I believe have contributed to it’s rise in popularity:

  1. It is something to anticipate (and get excited about)- Bourbon barrel coffee takes time to get to the consumer. There are barrels to buy, coffees to be selected and green coffee to barrel age. Then there is roasting and cupping to make sure the coffee is just right. This process could take a few months or more. Many coffee companies are doing a great job at getting the word out and building excitement for a bourbon coffee release.
  2. It is done in small batches- Small batches of crafted and curated consumables are very popular. Coffee consumers like the exclusivity and uniqueness. The limited time offerings and collaborations are all very enticing.
  3. It is something to share- We all like a reason to gather and share something unique, special or different. It is fun to make a fuss about something uncommon, get together and share a tasting experience. If that something contains overlapping interests or passions (like bourbon and coffee for many) this effect is heightened. 

About Bourbon Coffees

According to Modern Times Beer, an early pioneer in Bourbon Barrel Aged coffee, Ceremony Coffee was the first roaster they noticed doing this in 2014. Modern Times has been doing it since 2015. 

Caps or no caps for bourbon? Since Bourbon is a place (and a coffee varietal), I figured it would be capitalized. Going down the rabbit hole a bit, I’ve decided that it should be lower cased. It is kind of up for debate but I like this explanation.

There are three distinct terms in the bourbon and coffee game: bourbon barrel aged coffee, bourbon infused coffee and bourbon flavored coffee. 

For the purposes of this post, I am going to exclude bourbon flavored coffee from the discussion. This type of flavored coffee is usually done with chemicals like propylene glycol and uses green coffee of a pretty low caliber. This is not the coffee we came here to discuss. 

Does bourbon barrel coffee contain alcohol? All signs point to no. While it is hard to say without knowing the exact process for the alcohol infused coffees, barrel aged coffees should have any alcohol burned off during the roasting process. Coffee is roasted to 385 degrees Fahrenheit at the minimum (very low end) and can get up to more than 450 degrees for darker roasts.

What’s the difference between bourbon barrel aged and bourbon infused? 

As with most marketing terms, bourbon barrel aged coffee and bourbon infused coffee are terms that can get a little muddled. 

Most roasters who are marketing their coffee as an alcohol infused coffee will say their process is proprietary or not talk about the process at all. I’m not sure if that is to protect a top secret process, add mystery or cover up the use of artificial flavoring compounds. 

I will give these coffee infusers the benefit of the doubt and say they have a process for infusing the coffee with actual bourbon (not an artificial flavoring). I have thought of a couple of ways this could be achieved— soaking green coffee in a small amount of bourbon or spraying some bourbon on the roasted coffee as it cools. There are probably some more sophisticated ways of doing it.  

The barrel aging process is a lot more cut and dry. 

Green coffee (and coffee in general) is very susceptible to absorbing other flavors. This phenomenon is thought to occur on occasion with coffees from India that are grown and stored near spices (See “Coffee” by Kenneth Davids pg. 72). Coffee’s ability to absorb odors is one reason GrainPro bags are gaining popularity and also why you are generally discouraged from storing coffee in the freezer.

According to an article by my friends at FreshGround Roasting, to barrel age a coffee you need a used bourbon (or other alcohol) barrel that has recently been emptied. Once you have sourced the barrel, fill it up with green coffee, roll it around every once in awhile and let it age.

The unroasted coffee will pick up all those bourbon-y flavors by being in contact with the saturated insides of the barrel. The aging process takes a few weeks but could be longer depending on the roaster. The coffee is then roasted and delivered (hopefully fresh). 

So bourbon barrel aging is a pretty straight forward process. Bourbon infusing is a little mystical. If I were to choose a side, I’d go with the one where the practices are known. 

What is Bourbon Coffee Like?

At this point, you are probably wondering, “Well what does this stuff taste like anyhow?”

I will be the first to admit, I am not a huge fan of bourbon barrel coffees (or infused coffees in general). It is not exactly a coffee purist thing (although I do have strong leanings this way). Maybe its that I haven’t found one that really resonates with me but, for the most part, I’m drawn to coffee that is more nuanced and subtle.

The bourbon coffees I have tried are bold and their is no mistaking the presence of bourbon. You might feel a little awkward drinking it at church or around the office for instance. They are quite bourbon-y in taste and aroma. 

The presence of bourbon doesn’t mean the coffee should be an afterthought though. A good roaster will pick a coffee that compliments all the vanilla, caramel and oaky characteristics of the bourbon. The pairing should enhance and amplify each individual part. Look for roasters who emphasize or at least mention the coffee they selected for the pairing.

If you are a bourbon enthusiast, have been known to add a little bourbon to your (evening) coffee or are curious what all the fuss is about, I’d recommend you find a coffee labeled bourbon barrel aged and give it a try. It is fun to see what roasters can do when they are experimenting with coffee boundaries. Exploring the fusion between two passions is nearly always worth a little risk. 

Let me know what you think. 

What are your thoughts on the bourbon coffee craze? Do you have a bourbon coffee you enjoy? Let me know in the comments down below.