Cardinal Spirits: The quest to create the best coffee liqueur
When Cardinal Spirits set out to make a coffee liqueur, the first thing to do was to forget what they knew about coffee liqueur.
Familiar holiday standards like Kahlúa would not be the inspiration. For Adam Quirk, co-founder of Cardinal Spirits, a craft distillery in Bloomington, most of those coffee liqueurs just do not taste like real cof-fee.
Enter Songbird Craft Coffee Liqueur, Cardinal’s vodka-based spirit that tastes remarkably like coffee, be-cause it is made with coffee—a ton of it, in fact, and little else to muddy the flavor.
“We don’t use any kind of flavoring other than the raw ingredients,” Quirk says. “It’s just simply coffee beans, Bourbon vanilla beans and cane sugar.”
Cardinal Spirits debuted Songbird coffee liqueur shortly after opening its distillery and tasting room a mile south of downtown Bloomington in February 2015. There, a variety of spirits are distilled and bottled, including vodka, gin, rum and botanical liqueurs; bourbon and single-malt barley whiskey are cur-rently aging in barrels.
In the tasting room—a clean-lined, modern space that juxtaposes cool limestone and warm wood—the cocktail menu puts its spirits into action, including the coffee liqueur. Combine it with vodka and a mist-ing of orange oil, and you’ve got the fragrant Café à l’Orange; add it to vodka and cream, and you’ve got a velvety White Russian. Even more straightforward: Add a few splashes to warm coffee and top it with a thick cap of fresh whipped cream.
The coffee liqueur is fit for serious cocktails, and yet, flavorful and smooth enough to sip on its own.
“I keep a bottle in the fridge at home, and sometimes after work I’ll just pour a little glass of it,” Quirk says. “It’s the perfect cordial.”
For Quirk, the quest for a better coffee liqueur started after seeing his mom and aunts spiking their coffee with cloying, syrupy booze at family gatherings, especially around the holidays. Years before Cardinal Spirits opened, he began tinkering with an alternative to those well-known mass-produced spirits.
“I wanted to make something that had more coffee flavor,” Quirk says. “I wanted to make something dif-ferent.”
Like Cardinal’s other spirits, Songbird Craft Coffee Liqueur is flavored naturally. So, from the beginning, Quirk knew the coffee itself would be critical. For that, Cardinal Spirits turns to its neighbor—Hopscotch Coffee, a roaster and coffee shop a block away.
Hopscotch Coffee and Cardinal Spirits opened within months of each other, and Quirk says there was a kinship immediately. Both businesses brought vibrancy to a forgotten district of Bloomington, and both were making high-quality, small-batch beverages in a thoughtful manner.
At Hopscotch, roaster and co-owner Jane Kupersmith works the beans in 10-pound batches, relying on sight, smell and sound to tell when they’re done.
“Cardinal is like-minded … and they’re also making really wonderful craft products. It makes sense that we would try to find ways to work together,” Kupersmith says. “Our coffee is so good. How do you make it better? You make it boozy.”
For the coffee liqueur, beans are dark-roasted, then carted down the street to the distillery. Meanwhile, at Cardinal Spirits, vodka is distilled in preparation for the beans’ arrival. Some of the beans are put in a barrel with the vodka to steep, and the rest are brewed into a reduction with vanilla beans and sugar. Everything is blended and filtered by hand, then bottled.
Before the small-batch spirit was bottled for store shelves, it was made in even tinier batches. Logan Hunter, bar manager at Cardinal Spirits, made the coffee liqueur a gallon or two at a time, just enough to have on hand for cocktails in the tasting room.
“The majority of coffee liqueurs out there taste like chocolate or vanilla or white chocolate,” Hunter says. “With this one, you smell it, you take a sip of it and you know right away that it’s a coffee liqueur.”
A few other giveaways? A bit of sediment from the coffee beans at the bottom of the bottle. And, yep, it is caffeinated. Ounce for ounce, it has about the same caffeine as brewed coffee.
“It’s our most difficult product to make,” says Jeff Wuslich, co-founder of Cardinal Spirits. “I think it would be very easy to take this product to a lab and have them give us a flavor, and they could get close. But instead, we actually do it all by hand. I think it’s the best coffee liqueur in the world.”
You can stop by Cardinal Spirits at 922 S. Morton St., Bloomington, or call 812.202.6789 or visit them online at CardinalSpirits.com. They are open M–Th, 4–10pm; F–Su, noon to midnight. At the distillery, spirits are sold by the bottle, in cocktails and as flights. Free tours daily. Cardinal Spirits products are sold at liquor stores and grocery stores across Indiana; retail locations are listed on their website.
Erica Sagon is a freelance writer and editor who is happiest when she’s writing about local food (or eating it). She also co-hosts “The Weekly Special” TV show on PBS in Indiana. A short list of things she cannot resist: burrata, homemade pasta and gin cocktails.
Here are two delicious classic cocktails provided by Logan Hunter, drink slinger at Cardinal Spirits.