Flavored whiskeys are a tricky proposition, when it comes to treading the difficult balance between fulfilling consumer expectations of assertive flavors and remaining drinkable and not cloyingly sweet. It’s no secret that the consumers of most flavored whiskeys want a treacly, sticky sort of spirit, bordering on the territory where “liqueur” is a far more accurate title, but that syrupy consistency simultaneously turns off purists and those who have learned to appreciate neat spirits. Rarely does any flavored whiskey manage to appeal to both sets of consumers at once.
First Light Coffee Whiskey is a young company in San Diego, California that is attempting to do exactly that. They talk a big game on the natural production methods for their coffee-infused whiskeys, which begin their lives as corn whiskey sourced from MGP of Indiana, but the end product still verges on saccharine regardless. Still, lovers of coffee and coffee liqueurs may want to take note.
As previously stated, this product comes from a corn whiskey mash bill from MGP, and is unaged—according to the company’s statement to Paste, “after many experimental batches, we decided to use unaged distillate to produce clean, fresh coffee flavors. We found the charred oak flavor overpowered the coffee in our aged whiskey variations.”
That means you could just as truthfully refer to this product as “coffee moonshine,” and that would no doubt call different (and likely more accurate) expectations to mind. Regardless, after sourcing their whiskey, it is blended with “our organic raw agave syrup and coffee extracts which we source from world class flavor houses in the United States.” The product is then bottled at 33% ABV (66 proof). Note: First Light Coffee Whiskey uses decaf coffee for both available flavors (Original and Dark Roast), and thus “does not contain more than trace amounts of caffeine.” This would seem to run counter to a tagline of “For Those Who Want It All,” but it is what it is.
I received samples of both flavors, so let’s get to tasting.
The “Original” flavor of First Light Coffee Whiskey is a bit lighter in the bottle and the glass, with a bright copper color. The nose is not quite what I was expecting—not as one-dimensional and full of “coffee extract/cold brew” notes as I was thinking it likely would be. Rather, it’s more of a range of coffee-adjacent notes: Roasted nuts, earthiness, butter pecan and slightly acrid/burned notes, reminiscent of a fresh pot of diner coffee on a hot plate. It’s not overwhelmingly sweet, at least on the nose.
On the palate, this whiskey delivers the sort of syrupy texture you’re probably expecting, which translates to moderate-to-strong sweetness. There’s some decent roastiness here, and a barrage of hazelnut/chocolate spready kind of notes, along with strong vanilla—it evokes flavored coffee pods more than anything else. Tasting blind, you’d know it was a coffee or chocolate-flavored spirit or liqueur, but you’d probably have great difficulty knowing what the base spirit was supposed to be—due to the lack of aging, and the preference to not introduce a charred oak profile, it instead reads like a coffee-centric spirit.
All in all, this isn’t the kind of spirit that I seek out, but the residual sweetness at least keeps it from going full-on saccharine. It’s definitely the more approachable of these two spirits, as the Dark Roast throws itself even more fully into domination by coffee extract.
These two bottles are oddly similar in appearance, with small variations in color scheme. The words “dark roast” appear in very small lettering at the bottom, making me wonder why the company didn’t want the two different flavors to be more clearly defined from one another—especially considering that they actually come across as more distinct than I was expecting.
The Dark Roast variant of First Light Coffee Whiskey hits the nose like a full-on chocolate factory, with very strong aromatics of cocoa beans, fudge brownie and vanilla, mixed with faint traces of grain. It smells rather sickly sweet, which I’m sure is what some of the target consumers will want, but it lacks the somewhat more down-to-earth approach of the Original flavor. This one is clearly all-in on the flavor profile of that coffee extract.
On the palate, this is very sweet and very assertively flavored, with tons of chocolate, some roast and corresponding vanilla. The chocolate character reigns throughout, and if I had to compare it to a single confection, I’d say it reminds me strongly of the flavor of a chocolate Tootsie Pop. In fact, I imagine that you could probably repackage this exact spirit and sell it as a chocolate liqueur, and it would do fairly well. The sweetness, meanwhile, is such that a small sip or two is all I could manage before it was overwhelming.
Are there people who will love this? Yeah, I’m sure there are. I have a rather hard time imagining that it would be “the adventure enthusiast raising a toast to the planet and exploring all it has to offer,” as the company describes their intended consumer —this doesn’t strike me as something to share from a hip flask at the top of a mountain—but it probably has applications within the cocktail world, as most liqueurs would. It’s not how the company envisions their product being used, but that’s likely how I’d use it.
And yes, I’m acutely aware that I’m probably analyzing “coffee whiskey” with more seriousness than any of the intended consumers of coffee whiskey ever would. You should know by now, however, that this is what we do at Paste. Every bottle gets its moment to be weighed and measured.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.