Kahlua and Tia Maria have long been compared with each other, with many mixologists preferring one over the other.
Made with similar ingredients, both may seem the same, though each gives off different levels of bitterness and sweetness. Tia Maria is made with Jamaican rum and coffee beans, while Kahlua features 100% Arabica beans.
The coffee beans are not the only reason behind their distinctive flavors and notes though—I’ll introduce a few more differences along with my thoughts on which is best below.
What’s the difference between Kahlua and Tia Maria?
Both Tia Maria and Kahlua label themselves as coffee liqueur, though there are key differences that set them apart. Below, I've put them head-to-head in 6 different categories, including taste and price.
Tia Maria has a bitter coffee taste that’s offset with bits of vanilla and just a subtle touch of citrus. When sipping it alone or on ice, you will get a smooth mouthfeel with just enough of a coffee taste not to overwhelm your tastebuds.
Kahlua features a coffee taste too, though it has a syrupier texture. Along with the bitterness of coffee, Kahlua gives off notes of caramel and is quite a bit sweeter than Tia Maria.
What are they typically used for?
The flavors of both liquors make them a great mixer for all kinds of cocktails, especially espresso martinis and white Russians.
Tia Maria is great when sipped alone, adding a few ice cubes to diffuse the flavors a bit. It’s also used for treats that feature ice cream and heavy cream, including the famous tiramisu.
Kahlua’s texture is one reason why sipping it alone is not something I recommend. However, using it in a tasty baby Guinness topped with Bailey’s liquor, or a mudslide with a touch of Irish cream are both great options.
There isn’t much difference here. Both Tia Maria and Kahlua have 20% alcohol by volume (ABV), which is half that of liquors like whiskey and vodka. That means that the alcohol content is not relatively high, making both great liquors to use for mixing.
When it comes to calories, you’ll find a bit more in Tia Maria. For 1.5 oz., which is typically a shot, you’ll find about 105 calories. In one shot of Kahlua, you’ll find about 79.5 calories. So if you're looking to cut down on calories, Kahlua would be the better choice.
One shot of Kahlua contains nearly 20 grams of carbs, making it the higher of the two. Tia Maria has only 10 grams for the same amount, making it the better pick if you’re counting carbs.
When it comes to price, both liquors fall around the same price range. Tia Maria typically comes with a price tag of around $25 for a 750ml bottle. Kahlua costs, on average, $27, making it the more expensive of the two.
In many cases, the more expensive the liquor, the better, but with this one, there's more to consider.
Which is better?
After taking a look at the differences between the two liquors, you may have a pick in your head. For me, there is one that stands out over the other, and I’ll explain why.
#1. The Taste
When it comes to taste, I prefer Tia Maria. It packs a punch of coffee flavor and doesn’t have the same syrupy texture that you find in Kahlua. Kahlua is good, it’s just a bit too bitter and has more overall sweetness. Without mixing it properly, the sweetness can be overpowering.
#2. The Possibilities
Both Tia Maria and Kahlua are used in several drinks, though it’s Tia Maria that has more versatility. You can use it in desserts as well as a number of cocktails, including white Russians and mudslides. Not only can you use it in cocktails, but it’s perfectly good solo too, giving a smooth coffee taste with or without rocks.
#3. The Price
Though they’re close to the same price point, it’s always great to save a few bucks. When comparing the two, you can get Tia Maria at a bit of a cheaper price, making it just a slight winner in this category.
A few shortcomings
One area where Tia Maria may fall short is its availability. Kahlua can be found wherever liquor is sold, known as a staple in many bars. Tia Maria, on the other hand, is not featured everywhere and may only be available in a few stores near you.
Another minor shortcoming is that Tia Maria has a few more calories than Kahlua. You may need to limit consumption if you’re watching your weight, as calories from drinks can add up!
Still, despite the downsides, I'll stick to my opinion, which is that Tia Maria is the clear frontrunner. It’s got a great flavor, just the right amount of bitterness, and notes of both caramel and vanilla with each sip.