Coatepec is in the mountainous part of Mexico’s state of Veracruz. Trucks rumble through the streets, there’s a market in the square where you can buy fresh-roasted ears of corn slathered with mayonnaise and sprinkled with powdered chiles, and the cantinas serve smoky mezcal and ice-cold beers to wiry, calloused harvesters. There are old churches, farm supply dealers and open-air hardware stores.
But you’ll also see coffee shops on many streets, and people sip hot, sweet cups all day. Coatepec is a farm town, and the crops are coffee and sugar cane. This is where I went to learn about Kahlúa, the first and most famous coffee liqueur, because everything that goes into Kahlúa – coffee, cane spirit, caramel, and vanilla – comes from Mexico, and the all-important coffee comes from the high-altitude, shaded coffee groves in Veracruz.
“Kahlúa was invented in Veracruz in 1936, and nothing’s changed: not the process or what’s in it,” said Pernod Ricard’s Michelle Sanders, Senior Brand Manager for Kahlúa. “It is ‘The Original Spirit of Veracruz’. We don’t want anyone thinking we’ve changed it – we haven’t.”
Sanders has wanted to work on this brand for years, and was excited to get the job. In Coatepec, she told me she wanted to “reboot” Kahlúa. “It’s a great product, the liquid itself was great: a brand with so much volume, and no real product issues,” she said. “It just needed to be liberated from itself. The real challenge is to take a brand that once had momentum, but has problems, and steer that ship around, get at the crux of what’s going wrong.”
Kahlúa’s problems were all about the image and the core consumer. The core consumer problem is the same one every cordial has: Americans tend not to have after-dinner drinks, so the perception of the spirit has to be expanded out of that occasion. That intertwined with the image problem, so a common solution was optimum.
The image problem, paradoxically, had to do with the most popular ways to drink the liqueur: with cream. Call it “The Big Lebowski Problem”, because the bizarre cult popularity of Jeff Bridges’ White Russian-loving character in that movie has led to cries of “Hey, careful, man, there’s a beverage here!” when Kahlúa is mentioned.
“People associate it with White Russians or Mudslides, and those are creamy,” said Sanders. “If you want creamy, that’s fine, that’s great! If you don’t want a creamy drink, you write it off. But it’s delicious!”
We learned just what she meant at dinner, our first night in Coatepec. We had what Sanders sees as a key to turning Kahlúa around. “The lean-in moment is about connecting and engaging,” she said. “Our battle cry is ‘Connect with Kahlúa’. Everybody knows what the lean-back moment is; you lean back, you’re separating. Kahlúa is the opposite, it’s lean-in, engaging with the liquid in a way that promotes conversation.”
The conversation at the table started with me joking about when I used to tend bar, and had a customer who got Kahlúa sours. We made them with Daily’s sour mix back in the ’8Os, and the drink was green, almost iridescent; “Looked like 1OW-4O!” I said, and the table howled. Sanders and her team took it in, had a quiet talk with the restaurant’s bartender, and came back with a simple drink that shut us right up.
We were served a simple old-fashioned glass with a good handful of ice, Kahlúa, and a big wedge of lime, squeezed over the ice and liqueur. “What’s this?” we asked. A Kahlúa sour, they said . . . the right way.
It was an eye-opener. All the impressions I had about Kahlúa being heavy and sweet were blown away with the first sip: the fresh lime brightened and freshened it, accented the caramel and vanilla by contrast. It was alchemy, it was magic, and we couldn’t stop talking about it. I’ve been ordering them for friends, sharing the discovery, and love it when their eyes open wide just like mine did that night in Mexico.
That’s why Sanders has been barnstorming wholesalers, talking about what you can do with Kahlúa. It’s not something salespeople think about much. “It’s a profitable brand, so they don’t mind having it on their sales list, but they’ve got nothing to say about it,” Sanders said. “They don’t know what I can possibly talk about for 45 minutes, so energy is low.
“I tell them to take every promotional piece of Mayan calendar stuff, tiki stuff, and put it on a bonfire. Burn it!” she said, laughing. “That’s not what this is about, it’s about the spirit. It’s coffee and sugar cane spirit, a little vanilla and caramel. Is it simple? Yes, it is! There are elaborate stories out there: lots of botanicals, lots of distillation details, and that may work for some products. Kahlúa is quite simple: the complexity comes out of the drinker.” By the time she was done, and explained the Kahlúa story, the energy level had completely changed. It was as if everyone had a fresh cup of coffee and was ready to face the day.
Pernod Ricard and Sanders showed me the Kahlúa story firsthand, beginning with the most important part: the coffee. We started in Xalapa, a town we reached by a breath-taking flight over the mountains from Mexico City, followed by a sudden bank and drop into an airport situated among pastures with grazing cattle. We got into an SUV and headed upward through forests and small towns, rolling past splashing waterfalls, fields of cane, and roadside taquerias and drink stands, across a final river and up a long hill into Coatepec.
The first thing we did after checking into our hotel was to walk to Bola de Oro, the Veracruz equivalent of a Peet’s coffee shop, and had lecheros, a kind of reverse latte: a cup of steamed milk with a side shot of espresso you can blend in as you like. That was our introduction to Mexican shade-grown 1OO% Arabica coffee: delicious, and incredibly, indelibly fresh-roasted.
We walked the market in the square – busy, authentic to a T, not a recent tourist creation – and then back to the hotel for dinner, where we had our lean-in moment. I was starting to realize that this was going to be more than the standard look at stills and bottling lines.
The next morning – a cool, cloudy day in the mountains – we got down to the intrigue of coffee. We went to Cafe Tal, a combination coffee plantation, roaster and museum, run by Cuauhtemoc Apan Rohas, a man who has an evangelist’s zeal for coffee. “Cafe Tal” means, in his words, “coffee field” or “coffee terroir” which was at the heart of his message: where coffee is grown is perhaps more important than anything else but whether the coffee is Arabica or Robusto.
Cuauhtemoc led us out back into a green park behind the Cafe Tal building, where winding paths took us under trees and past coffee bushes to a cleared circle surrounded by large coffee sacks; a single coffee bush grew in the center of the clearing. We sat on the sacks, a moment at once like a campfire, but also an almost druidic reverence of the coffee bush. Cuauhtemoc, dressed in simple linen pants and a multi-pocketed safari shirt and speaking through a translator, began to preach coffee.
Once a seed is planted, the infant Arabica coffee bush grows inside a plastic bag for a year, to protect it from pests and animals. After three years, it is replanted under the shade of full-grown trees, often citrus trees: oranges, limes, lemons. It does not produce coffee berries until the fifth year.
The bush produces flowers in March and April, a small white flower with a pleasant citrus aroma. The berries grow from the flowers, green at first, then turning red towards harvest time in November through January. (You have to be careful with the picking, Cuauhtemoc said; green berries in the roast will make the whole batch taste of peanuts.)
The red ‘cherry’ has a sweet smell, the slippery flesh around the two beans in each one smelling like pomegranate. The flesh is removed by machine, as is a second skin (the ‘tamo’) from each bean, and then the beans are roasted. A bush will produce coffee beans for forty years, around eight to ten kilograms (sixteen to twenty-two pounds) of berries a year: five kilos of berries yields only one kilo of roasted beans.
Arabica beans are picky. They only grow in shade, between 9OO and 12OO meters above sea level (Coatepec is at 1O5O meters), and in climates where they get six to seven months of rain. Coffee culture, said Cuauhtemoc, is like wine culture. The soil, the weather, the altitude, are all important to the flavor of the roasted bean.
Arabica beans can’t really be grown in huge fields, like the more hardy robusto plants, and their yield is lower: 1O,OOO square meters (about 2.5 acres) of arabica produces fifteen 57-kilo sacks of beans, while a robusto field of the same size produces 😯 sacks of beans that have twice the caffeine. That all makes arabica beans harder to grow and to harvest, and therefore more expensive; a large part of the reason why more robusto is grown.
So why grow arabica at all? Simple: it makes a better-tasting cup of coffee. All the finer coffees advertise 1OO% arabica beans, and all the single variety roasted coffees you see – Kenya AA, Sumatra, Yirgacheffe, anything “shade-grown” – are arabica beans. Mexico used to be a world leader in arabica production, producing six million sacks a year; now production is under 2 million.
He then proved his point: he served us fresh coffee, his coffee, grown in the Cafe Tal plantation, and it was delicious: aromatic, full-bodied, complex. He showed us the flowers, the green and red berries – all hand-picked – the beans in skins, and the final roasted bean. Roasting is an art, and science has improved it. Roasters used to slow-roast the beans for an hour, and intuitively you’d think that was somehow better . . . but it turns out that higher temperatures and faster roasting makes better-tasting coffee. The slow roasting carbonized the bean, giving a bitter ashiness.
Then . . . he took us to the coffee plantation. We boarded a 1962 Dodge Power Wagon, and Cuauhtemoc took us down a deeply-rutted trail (at about 1Omph, which was plenty fast) past sugar cane fields – some still growing, some harvested and burned off – to the steep, wooded slopes where the coffee grows.
We walked a narrow path through what looked like jungle: bananas, toucans, views of snow-capped volcanos through the leaves, and over a ten-foot long procession of leaf-cutter ants. It hammered home Cuauhtemoc’s point that arabica coffee growing involves an entire ecosystem; a better way to grow coffee, he said, not just for the coffee, but for the community, for the land, for the industry, and eventually for the consumer.
From Coatepec’s coffee plantations to Pernod Ricard’s Kahlúa production facility in Mexico City is a long way, a five hour drive up through the mountains, then across miles of high plateau surrounded by more mountains and volcanoes. As we topped the final pass and headed down into Mexico City, the incredible size of the city swept from one side of the huge old lakebed to the other, a tidal expanse of buildings that is very far from Coatepec indeed.
But inside the Pernod Ricard compound, coffee is revered just as it is in Coatepec. Miguel Hernandez, the jefe de elaboraciones for Kahlua, showed us a spotless white facility that is, essentially, a giant drip coffee maker. The coffee arrives as unroasted beans in huge sacks, and is roasted in 1OO kilo batches. After roasting, the beans are cooled in an agitating tub, and then rests for twelve hours, while gasses escape from the newly roasted beans. The coffee is ground, and rests again for twelve hours.
(Why does it sit around like that? Isn’t fresh-roasted and fresh-ground better? I’ve actually been told by other coffee roasters that coffee needs to rest after roasting for these gasses to come off; they create odd undesirable flavors in the coffee otherwise.)
After its rest, the coffee is put in an extractor tank with ambient temperature water. This is where the coffee, the liquid, is made – a slower process than your morning cup, but one that pulls the maximum amount of flavor from the coffee. After the grounds are extracted, the coffee is pumped to tanks to be mixed with the sugar cane spirit. It rests again, marrying with the spirit, for six weeks. Any remaining sediment from the coffee is then filtered out, and the liquor is sent to another tank to be mixed with caramel and vanilla. The caramel, made from Mexican cane sugar, is the only sugar that is added to Kahlúa.
This is, almost, Kahlúa. It is at 42%ABV at this point, and we got to taste some in the lab. It was intense: the caramel/vanilla/chocolate sensation was bigger. “Extreme Kahlúa”, another writer said. This is how Kahlúa goes to the US, in tankers, before being cut to packaging proof and being bottled.
So, as Sanders had said, Kahlúa is simple: coffee, cane spirit, vanilla, and caramel. No elaborate lists of botanicals, no secret recipes handed down by family or guarded by religious oaths, no careful barrel aging. Coffee is, as I’d learned, a complexity all in its own, but Kahlúa comes down to a simple idea: a pleasantly sweet and surprisingly versatile coffee liqueur.
The new promotional campaign for the brand – Sander’s “reboot” – is similarly simple, and it comes in one word: Delicioso. “It actually says ‘Licor Delicioso’ on the bottle,” she said; it always has.”
You’re going to see a lot of Delicioso. “The campaign is TV, print, billboards, commuter rail posters,” Sanders said. “Pernod Ricard is investing in the brand and there’s going to be a lot of momentum.
“Kahlúa was slipping,” Sanders admitted, “and it’s stabilizing with the new efforts. You know, you look at a brand that’s slipping, and you say, ‘Do we let it slip and just coast or try to turn it around?’ The decision all the way up to the top was unreservedly, ‘let’s turn it around’. It’s such a great product, they’ll support it.
“We’re going to be spending a lot on TV and radio,” she noted. “It’s an iconic campaign: the bottle and cocktails, the word Delicioso. It reinforces the brand. It’s just correcting perceptions. There’s no issue with Kahlúa, it’s just not top of mind; people don’t think to have it. We don’t have distribution issues; we’re a big brand. We’re lucky.”
As mentioned, a big part of that perception correction is de-coupling Kahlúa from creamy drinks. You won’t see any cream-based drinks in the Delicioso campaign, and you won’t be seeing anymore of the Kahlúa cream liqueur that was a limited edition in 2OO9; it dilutes the message, according to Sanders.
What you will see is Kahlúa in combinations like the rocks and lime squeeze we enjoyed so much. “We’re looking at drinks with at-home mixers like cola, club soda,” Sanders said. “It’s great in hot coffee, of course, but great in iced coffee, too, which gives us much greater seasonality. We’re not moving away from the Black Russian, which is a great choice. But the piece de resistance is the Kahlúa Espresso Martini. It’s aspirational, it’s elegant, sophisticated, and it’s easy. It’s got broad appeal.”
Phyllis Anders, the manager at Bella’s in Rockland (one of the largest on-premise accounts for Kahlúa in Massachusetts) has had great success with the espresso martini, and says it’s a visually distinctive drink as well. “We serve our espresso martinis with a little extra on the side, on ice, to keep it cold,” she said, “and people see it, and it just makes them ask: ‘Ooo, what’s that?’ Once they know, they want to try it. People know what Kahlúa is, people who don’t drink much still know it.
“We do a lot of espresso martinis,” she said, “we’ve been doing those three or four years now. They fly. We get a very mixed crowd: young people, older people – it’s popular with all of them.”
I asked Anders why Bella’s uses Kahlúa instead of any of the other coffee liqueurs available on the market (a growing number, with some new microdistillery entries as well). “Honestly?” she noted, after some thought. “It’s the best. You can do anything with it: Kahlúa and soda, mudslides, White Russian. It’s like chocolate.”
Juliette Hajjar, at Hajjar’s Restaurant in Weymouth, had a similar reason. “Coffee brandy is cheap,” she said. “Kahlúa is a name brand. They ask for it. It’s got its own flavor . . . and people who drink coffee know as soon as you open the Kahlúa. They smell it. People who drink coffee know. It’s like . . . if someone asks for a screwdriver, they get bar vodka. If they want Absolut, they ask for Absolut and orange. We make all our mudslides with Kahlúa; we don’t use bottom shelf for that.”
Steve Gordon, Pernod Ricard’s District Manager for Off-Premise in Massachusetts, reinforced the “more than cream” message. I asked him if a familiar brand like Kahlúa can still be a prospect for hand-selling. “It can definitely be hand-sold,” he said. “Because people forget what’s in the bottle. You have to re-introduce people to the brand. A lot of people think there’s only two ways to drink it, but there’s a lot of other ways! It’s really a pretty light spirit; it’s like a rum. Kahlúa on the rocks, Kahlúa and soda is pretty good.”
It’s not alone: Kahlúa has finally entered the brand extension game. “There are three flavors,” Sanders reminded me. “Mocha, French Vanilla and Hazelnut. Then we have a limited edition for the holidays: Kahlúa Peppermint Mocha. It’s just really good candy. We did a small amount to provide some animation. We have plans for holiday limited editions over the next few years. If Peppermint Mocha goes wild, we may bring that back.”
There’s also the Kahlúa Especial, something very close to that “Extreme Kahlúa” we got to taste in the lab in Mexico City. “It’s available year-round,” said Sanders. “It’s 35%ABV, very popular with mixologists. It has a more intense Arabica coffee flavor.” Something to remember if you have a local coffee roaster near you: there are always people looking for more coffee flavor, and Especial can deliver it.
Gordon pointed out that although Kahlúa may not be as big as it once was, it still looks and acts like a much bigger brand, and that’s to your advantage. “Kahlúa, each holiday, outperforms its competition and some of the biggest brands in the state with the size of display,” he said. “The brand looks like a 2OO,OOO case brand, even though it isn’t. Cross-stack it with Absolut, promote drink recipes, ways to use the brand. Try to make it as interactive as possible, so if people buy it, they’ve got a way to mix it.
“I stress putting out two sizes,” he continued; “why would they buy a 1.75 if they never tried it? There’s a whole population of 21- to 36-year-olds who have never had it. It never talked to them. Putting the proper communications on the display about what it can be is very important. It’s not just a White Russian: it’s an espresso martini, it’s Kahlúa on the rocks. That’s important.”
Sanders made it very simple, as she’d said all along. “What’s the most popular flavor on the planet?” she asked. “Coffee! Coffee, coffee, coffee! This is best coffee liqueur on earth. It’s 1OO% Arabica coffee; it’s the rarest, the most expensive, the best. It’s a long process about growing and picking the beans, making the coffee and the spirit. I don’t think any other product can talk about fresh ingredients and quality like we can.”
It’s an old, familiar brand. There’s a bottle on almost every bar, there’s a bottle in almost every home; I can tell you where we keep ours (lower left on the pantry door rack). But since I took that trip to Coatepec, I see Kahlúa in a new light, so much more than something to put in coffee and cookies. Sanders hopes that the Delicioso campaign will bring that Veracruz experience to a whole new audience.
Kahlúa Espresso Martini
1½ parts Kahlúa
1 part Absolut vodka
1 fresh brewed espresso
Fill a shaker with ice.
Add Kahlúa, Absolut and a fresh brewed espresso.
Strain into a chilled martini glass.
Garnish with a single coffee bean.