What is behind whisky's coffee cocktail craze?

What is behind whisky's coffee cocktail craze?

Whisky and coffee have a long history – and the enduring pairing is back in the spotlight. All around the world, here’s how the world’s most creative flavour makers are pushing the iconic pairing

News | 30 Jan 2024 | By Kristiane Sherry

  • Share to:

The coffee scene in Melbourne is remarkable. For bean aficionados, a trip to the city is something of a pilgrimage. It boasts more than 2,000 cafés and attracts some of the world’s best baristas. It’s at the forefront of Australia’s vibrant coffee scene. The country’s coffee café network is the largest outside of Europe, according to Reuters, and it’s worth upwards of US$6.6 billion. In short, there’s a lot going on. It’s little surprise that it’s also become something of a coffee cocktail capital, too.


The city’s coffee culture harks back to Italian migration in the 1940s and 1950s. Today, baristas and bartenders are taking inspiration from each other when it comes to evolving taste boundaries.


“The biggest crossover is flavour,” asserts Tom McHugh, bar manager at The Mulberry Group’s Hazel.  He says the evolution of the city’s brunch scene, along with the competitiveness of its hospitality industry, resulted in remarkable creativity in coffee. “Huge leaps came from roasteries and cafés really pushing the limits.”


Take this alongside the rise of the serious Australian cocktail bar. Venues regularly reach lofty heights on the global 50 Best Bars list (Sydney’s Maybe Sammy took 15th place this year, Melbourne’s Caretaker’s Cottage 23). Maybe Sammy has a dedicated coffee cocktail section on its menu. “We have a deep love of coffee,” it reads. So deep is this dedication that it roasts its own blend on a weekly basis.


What’s exciting for the whisky drinker is that in Melbourne, Sydney, and beyond, coffee cocktails are following suit. No longer is a coffee-based serve only about the Espresso Martini or Irish Coffee – although both play a critical role in this delicious development. The Serious Whisky Cocktail is a trend gathering pace all around the world as more people realise the versatility of the pairing.


Gearóid O'Callaghan, a whisky consultant who works across the UK, Germany, and Ireland, thinks the whisky and coffee pairing is taking off right across Europe. In addition to his whisky work, he is also an accomplished barista – and he is passionate about both. “Whisky has slowly taken over as my main passion and full-time job, but I try to integrate coffee as much as possible,” he says. 


But why do the two work so well together? Process plays a part, O'Callaghan reckons. “They technically and physically work well together because there is roasting involved in both.” It’s all about the physical state changing from green to golden and brown – both the barley and the beans – and the development of flavour.


“The application of heating changes the raw indigestible make-up of barley through malting and coffee through roasting into the flavours we intrinsically love and are drawn to,” he details. There’s more to the magic, too. “When I create whisky cocktails, the holy grail for me is getting acidity in the drink without using citrus fruits or other acids. Depending on the coffee and how it was roasted, we can use some of the coffee’s natural acidity to balance the drink.”


In short, whisky and coffee are wildly compatible. This shouldn't be new news – the Irish Coffee has been an indulgence for decades – but what’s changing now is that the coffee and whisky combination is moving to the forefront of cocktails.

Mixing up Jura Whisky and coffee. Credit: Attraact Creatives

It’s not just in bars. Whisky distilleries have also had their interest piqued by the combination. Rob Patchett, global whisky brand ambassador at England’s Cotswolds Distillery, is exploring partnerships with coffee makers.


“There have been a few things that have happened over the last few months that have really made us look at coffee and whisky in a different way,” he explains. “One of them was that a local coffee roaster reached out to us and said they'd like to rest their green beans in a whisky barrel. Unbeknownst to me, green coffee beans actually take on a lot of whatever is ambient to them.”


It’s a fascinating prospect – and one that shows the interest in the great whisky-coffee flavour transaction isn’t just one way. Coffee producers want in, too. “Because they are ripening organic material, they take on whatever is getting to them,” Patchett says. The theory is that the coffee producer will take a spent Cotswolds ex-bourbon cask, fill it with green beans, and rotate it on a regular basis to give them oak contact. Then, they use them to make the coffee. “It’s been done by one other roaster before, but we’re really excited because this one is half an hour away from us,” he continues. “And it’s not a gimmicky square peg, round hole way of introducing coffee and whisky together.”


In a whisky market that is freer than others when it comes to innovation, there’s an obvious link back. “Your curiosity is the same as ours and we’re like, ok, will we be able to use the cask afterwards?” Patchett hints. “Then we’d have a coffee bean-seasoned spirit. We don't know, it’s like a complete unknown, but we’re fascinated to find out.”


Patchett is excited about the downstream whisky-coffee cocktail development, too. “Coffee Boulevardiers, amazing. Coffee Old Fashioned, fantastic. The application of coffee in cocktails is establishing itself quite well.”


And then there’s a maker (who asked not to be named at this stage) that is taking coffee and casks a step further. 


“Pressure injection is a legal thing for us,” they explain. “We looked at the process with fortified and dessert wines. Why can’t you do that with a coffee cask?” The idea is that they take coffee and simply blast it into the oak. The results should be consistent and well controlled. “That’s something we are exploring.”


It’s not just experimental New World whisky makers harnessing the potential of coffee – established Scotch names are also on the case. In his work in Germany, O'Callaghan has used Port Charlotte in a 50/50 mix with water as the liquid in a cold dripper. “I cold dripped the coffee over 24 hours using coffee from a local roastery that complemented the flavours already in the whisky.” It was simply served neat.


In Slovenia with a group of bartenders he heated Jura 18 with Onetake Coffee, local organic cream, dark muscovado sugar, and nutmeg over an open fire to get the smoke. “The idea was to get back to the individual flavours and reduce the drink to its humble origins,” he explains.


Ultimately, for O'Callaghan, the pairing has another purpose, too. “Whisky hasn’t always been accessible to curious drinkers because of years of clichés regarding watch-wearing men in leather chairs,” he muses. “Coffee bridges that gap for some people in a way, by offering comfort and familiarity.” It’s an interesting point – by positioning whisky in a fresh light, it makes sense that it places the spirit in front of new audiences.


“Whisky making is a skilled profession, as is coffee roasting, especially in the speciality segment,” he sums up. “Both liquids are complex, and I think it shows great skill and understanding to be able to combine complex ingredients into one harmonious experience.” When it’s harmonious, which it usually is, it is magical.



Fancy trying your hand at whisky coffee cocktails? Gearóid O'Callaghan has shared these two recipes:


Coffee, Criaderas and the Caribbean


3 parts cold-brew coffee (ideally Ethiopia light roast)

2 parts Bushmills Caribbean Rum Finish Cask Finish

1 part rich demerara syrup (2:1)

1/2 part fino sherry

2 dashes Angostura bitters


Optional topping:

1 part RumChata cream liqueur

1 part oat milk


Put the water and sugar in a high-speed blender with the sherry and run it at its highest speed for about a minute, or until the sugar has dissolved. Add the remaining ingredients and run for another 30 seconds. Adjust to taste depending on the wine. Transfer contents to a ziplock bag and put in the freezer. Once an hour, squeeze the bag to create a slush consistency.


Optional: Mix the RumChata and oat milk in a gourmet whip and charge it with one or two N2O capsules.


Serve in a coupe glass with a spoon or in a rocks glass with a wide straw.


Open Fire Irish Coffee


150 ml freshly brewed black coffee (ideally Arabica from Brazil, medium roast)

50 ml Teeling Blackpitts

1 tbsp dark muscovado sugar

Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg

2 tbsp cream


Optional topping:



Put the cream in a small jar with a lid, screw it on tightly, shake it until the cream becomes thicker and creamier, and put the jar aside. (You can also whip the cream with a whisk, but not too hard.) Pour the hot coffee and whisky into a heatproof glass or mug, add the sugar, and stir until dissolved. Slowly pour the cream into the mug or glass over a spoon. If you like, grate a little nutmeg on top of the drink.

Magazine Archive

From the archive

Select an issue

Subscribe Now

Subscriptions for
Whisky Magazine are available
in print, digital or as a
complete package

The Benefits

8 print editions a year

Enjoy the convenience of home delivery

Full access to every digital edition via desktop, iOS or Android device

Latest Issue Subscribe Now

The Whisky Encyclopedia - Coming Soon 2024

Discover the world of whisky with our comprehensive encyclopedia
Featuring companies, distilleries, brands, glossaries, and cocktails

Join The Community

Sign up to the Whisky Magazine
newsletter letter and get access to the latest
in all things whisky

paragraph publishing ltd.   Copyright © 2024 all rights reserved.   Website by Acora One

Consent Preferences