Bottle #40: Tia Maria

Jan 11, 2024

Bottle #40 is a bottle of Tia Maria, or as I have sometimes thought of it: “the other coffee liqueur.” Kahlua comes to mind more easily, although I don’t know why it should, when my stepmother would make a batch of homemade “Tia Maria” for Christmas every year. Probably because I was too young to drink it!

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Kahlua came first, invented in Mexico in 1936 and imported into the US in 1940. Jamaican competitor Tia Maria wasn’t that far behind with a creation date of 1946. Like so many of these liqueurs it comes complete with a marketing-driven origin story. The romantic version of the story involves a young Spanish girl in the 17th century who was forced to flee her home in Jamaica with nothing but a bit of jewelry and the recipe for the family liqueur. She survived and flourished thanks to the assistance of a loyal female servant who she called Tia Maria, who she then honored by naming the liqueur after her.

The truth is much more pedestrian. The most likely claim seems to be that in 1946 Jamaican politician and businessman Morris Cargill wanted to recreate a liqueur his aunt used to make. When she wouldn’t give him the recipe, he teamed up with Dr Ken Evans to come up with one. After spending a day with their ad firm struggling to decide on a name, Cargill told the story of trying to get the recipe from his Aunt, and ad company exec Joseph MacNulty said, “I know exactly what we’ll call that damn liqueur. Aunt Mary — Tia Maria.”

Spanish-sounding name aside, from its start Tia Maria was a Jamaican product, made using Jamaican rum as the base along with a concentrate of Blue Mountain coffee. It was originally bottled at 31.5% ABV, but like most of these classic liqueurs it got less alcoholic over time. Big Four member Hiram Walker (see Opal Nera Sambuca) bought the brand in the 1980s, and dropped the alcohol content to 26.5%. The decision probably wasn’t because they lost 5000 gallons of Tia Maria in a shipping accident, and needed to make what they had left go farther, but that was one of more fun tidbits of information my research turned up. Along with some amazing TV adverts (and one not-so-amazing)!

Today’s Tia Maria is really different to the stuff from the early days, and even from the 80s. In 2009 the brand was sold to ILLVA Saronno, better known as the makers of Bottle #10 – Disaronno liqueur. Possibly before then, but definitely by then, the alcohol level was lowered to 20% ABV, and after the sale production moved to Italy. So it’s not really Jamaican anymore. The Blue Mountain coffee reference was gone by the 80s, replaced with just “finest coffee.” In 2020 they rebranded as Tia Maria Cold Brew Liqueur, with “100% Arabica coffee, the unmistakable notes of vanilla from Madagascar and a touch of strong Jamaican rum.”

So it’s lucky for me, then, that my bottle of Tia Maria is from before all that. It’s got a special “bottled in Jamaica” label right on the neck of the bottle. It’s another UK bottle (I have no idea how Grandma ended up with so many of these!) and it’s marked as 55 UK proof, which translates to that original 31.5% ABV. And that also means it’s pre-1980, since that’s when the UK switched to using ABV. I haven’t been able to pin the date down any more tightly than that. The bottle was imported by United Rum Merchants, but that company was established in 1948, so it doesn’t give me any information on the earliest the bottle could have been from.

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Bottle #40: Tia Maria

Jan 11, 2024 |

Bottle #40 is a bottle of Tia Maria, or as I have sometimes thought of it: “the other coffee liqueur.” Kahlua comes to mind more easily, although I don’t know why it should, when my stepmother would make a batch of homemade “Tia Maria” for Christmas every year. Probably because I was too young to drink it!

Kahlua came first, invented in Mexico in 1936 and imported into the US in 1940. Jamaican competitor Tia Maria wasn’t that far behind with a creation date of 1946. Like so many of these liqueurs it comes complete with a marketing-driven origin story. The romantic version of the story involves a young Spanish girl in the 17th century who was forced to flee her home in Jamaica with nothing but a bit of jewelry and the recipe for the family liqueur. She survived and flourished thanks to the assistance of a loyal female servant who she called Tia Maria, who she then honored by naming the liqueur after her.

The truth is much more pedestrian. The most likely claim seems to be that in 1946 Jamaican politician and businessman Morris Cargill wanted to recreate a liqueur his aunt used to make. When she wouldn’t give him the recipe, he teamed up with Dr Ken Evans to come up with one. After spending a day with their ad firm struggling to decide on a name, Cargill told the story of trying to get the recipe from his Aunt, and ad company exec Joseph MacNulty said, “I know exactly what we’ll call that damn liqueur. Aunt Mary — Tia Maria.”

Spanish-sounding name aside, from its start Tia Maria was a Jamaican product, made using Jamaican rum as the base along with a concentrate of Blue Mountain coffee. It was originally bottled at 31.5% ABV, but like most of these classic liqueurs it got less alcoholic over time. Big Four member Hiram Walker (see Opal Nera Sambuca) bought the brand in the 1980s, and dropped the alcohol content to 26.5%. The decision probably wasn’t because they lost 5000 gallons of Tia Maria in a shipping accident, and needed to make what they had left go farther, but that was one of more fun tidbits of information my research turned up. Along with some amazing TV adverts (and one not-so-amazing)!

Today’s Tia Maria is really different to the stuff from the early days, and even from the 80s. In 2009 the brand was sold to ILLVA Saronno, better known as the makers of Bottle #10 – Disaronno liqueur. Possibly before then, but definitely by then, the alcohol level was lowered to 20% ABV, and after the sale production moved to Italy. So it’s not really Jamaican anymore. The Blue Mountain coffee reference was gone by the 80s, replaced with just “finest coffee.” In 2020 they rebranded as Tia Maria Cold Brew Liqueur, with “100% Arabica coffee, the unmistakable notes of vanilla from Madagascar and a touch of strong Jamaican rum.”

So it’s lucky for me, then, that my bottle of Tia Maria is from before all that. It’s got a special “bottled in Jamaica” label right on the neck of the bottle. It’s another UK bottle (I have no idea how Grandma ended up with so many of these!) and it’s marked as 55 UK proof, which translates to that original 31.5% ABV. And that also means it’s pre-1980, since that’s when the UK switched to using ABV. I haven’t been able to pin the date down any more tightly than that. The bottle was imported by United Rum Merchants, but that company was established in 1948, so it doesn’t give me any information on the earliest the bottle could have been from.

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