It’s not often that an email in my inbox leads to me questioning a PR person on whether a liqueur contains any traces of a narcotic, but then again, most products aren’t Cocalero. This odd herbal liqueur is newly arrived in the Georgia market, where it’s being tested in advance of a wider national release. Calling itself an “Andean” spirit with Incan inspiration, this Irish-made (yes, you read that right) spirit is made with all the mystical properties of the South American coca leaf, along with 16 other botanicals that apparently include guarana, juniper and ginseng. If that sounds to you like a mishmash between “gin” and “energy drink,” then you’re actually not far off.
As I immediately confirmed, the coca leaf involved in the production of Cocalero contributes no psychoactive character, being extracted by “a specialised steam distillation process pioneered by the perfume industry.” The drink’s PR people slyly say that “we source our coca leaf from a legal source (which also supplies a very well-known soft drink brand!) and needless to say it therefore has no narcotic effect.” The implication is obviously that Cocalero is making use of some of the same processes as Coca-Cola itself, although they’re probably barred from using that brand’s name in their marketing.
There’s one more oddity to the Cocalero story as well, and it’s this: The liqueur has apparently become extremely popular in Japan. For whatever reason, Cocalero is the hot new club drink, being mixed as “Cocalero bombs” with Red Bull or other energy drinks, in combinations that I can only assume taste about as good as most American “bomb” drinks.
All this information simply made me more curious as to what Cocalero would actually taste like, so let’s get to it. Out of curiosity, and especially after seeing the bright green liquid in the bottle, I tasted Cocalero side by side with two other green or yellow-tinged herbal liqueuers—the ever-popular St-Germain elderflower liqueur, and the much less known Boomsma Cloosterbitter.
The first thing you can’t help but notice is the otherworldly color of Cocalero. Where St-Germain is a very pale yellow, and the Cloosterbitter is the dull green of faded grass clippings, Cocalero is frighteningly bright. Its neon, lime-green coloration seems to say “I am artificially conceived,” and I’d be lying if I said it didn’t worry me some. However, I ended up being pleasantly surprised in spite of myself.
On the palate, Cocalero is moderately sweet—moreso than the more traditional “herbal liqueur” of Cloosterbitter, but markedly less sweet than the intensity of St-Germain, which is primarily used for sweetening cocktails. It packs a bright, piercing note of candy-sweet lime citrus on the forefront, which passes into a melange of herbal notes, some piney juniper, and closes with moderate bitterness—once again inbetween the more bitter Cloosterbitter and the non-bitter St-Germain. It’s surprisingly “crisp” in nature.
Dare I say, the effect is much more balanced than one might expect. Sure, it tastes almost exactly like a green Froot Loop, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The level of residual sweetness is dialed into a place where it’s not unpalatable to drink at least a small amount of Cocalero neat, and by pouring it over ice this drinkability would only be accentuated. Likewise, the restrained bitterness helps keep everything in check and keeps the liqueur from feeling entirely like a gimmick. Is this a drink for lovers of intensely bitter amaro, such as Fernet Branca? Certainly not, but it could very well appeal to drinkers who are just dipping a toe into herbal liqueurs, and it might have some interesting cocktail applications as well—as long as you’re seeking that candy lime note.
Ultimately, Cocalero isn’t among the most complex spirits in this corner of the liqueur family tree—it’s not a replacement for chartreuse, or Cloosterbitter, or Suze. Rather, it’s an easygoing drink that is approachable when neat, and might have some other applications waiting to be discovered.
One of the liqueur’s official descriptions suggests that you use Cocalero as a “replacement for rum in a Mojito.” I can’t say that I would recommend that, as the Cocalero is far sweeter than your standard white rum, but if you cut out any extra sugars in the drink … perhaps it might actually work?
I leave it to you to find out.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.