The Aussie-made coffee liqueur for people who "give a damn" what they drink.
You love your morning coffee, and don't mind a tipple of something more robust after dark. Is it a bridge too far to combine the two?
Tom Baker clearly doesn't think so. He and distillery whiz Phillip Moore have put their heart and soul into an Australian-made coffee liqueur, Mr Black, concocting a product that neatly combines two well-loved slices of contemporary Australian life.
Baker, the company director and a designer by trade who has worked with many of the world's top alcohol brands, says the product is "for people who give a damn about what they drink".
"They could go out and buy a bottle of Smirnoff or Kahlua or something from the bottle shop, but they're into something that's made with care and they're happy to pay a little bit more for it," he says.
"They're consumers, people who drink but also coffee people. This has really appealed to coffee lovers."
They're not the only ones. Last year Mr Black was awarded a gold medal at the Olympics of the alcohol world, the International Wine and Spirits Competition in London.
While Baker concedes that what's inside the bottle is most crucial element, another key point of difference will be the packaging, designed by Sydney-based artist and illustrator Dale Bigeni. The distinctive bottle and label includes a graphic that reveals itself as the black liquid is poured out.
"It's really important that the product looks as good as it tastes. It takes so long to make Mr Black, there's so much love and care that goes into the liquid inside, it would be a shame to put it in something that doesn't look as nice," Baker says.
Baker and Moore concocted Mr Black at Distillery Botanica in Erina, near Gosford, which is among only 22 operational distilleries in Australia.
Moore uses a slow-drip method to create the liqueur, rather than a more straightforward filtering process that removes flavour. "It brings a different flavour out of the coffee, slightly sweeter," Baker says.
He fondly describes his business partner as more of a "mad scientist" than a businessman. "Phillip's the guy who sits at his bench and creates these crazy concoctions," he says. "Probably about a year ago I thought, 'this guy is just insanely talented'; he's one of the most out-of-this-world talents I've ever met. I thought we should share this with more people, and that's when we came up with Mr Black.
"We both like coffee and that seemed a good reason. In any one week he's probably got 20 different ideas on the go that he thinks he can make, and coffee happened to be one of them, he had already started playing with it."
One of the secrets to their success is using the freshest coffee they can lay their hands on, sourced from Glee Coffee Roasters in Erina, near the distillery.
"Working with the local roaster we can talk to them about what's working, different flavour profiles, how dark we want the roast. So having a local supplier really helps," Baker says.
To date the pair has manufactured "a couple of thousand bottles" but has also fielded significant interest from numerous bars and distributors keen to stock the liqueur.
"That's really encouraging because the trade generally has a good idea about what's going to work and what's not," Baker says.
He says the Erina distillery can scale up significantly if demand requires it. "It might take some modifications, but I'm told 80,000 to 100,000 bottles [per year] is possible," he says.
But at the moment it's a case of baby steps, one of the first being to raise cash via crowd-funding website pozible.com. As Executive Style went to press Mr Black had more than doubled its funding target of $10,000, money that will go towards manufacturing the first commercial batch of liqueur which will largely be sent to Pozible backers. Some will also begin to flow to a yet-to-be-announced list of venues in Sydney from next month.
How and when to drink it
So when, exactly, is the right time to sip on a coffee liqueur?
Baker's favourite is either in a cocktail or as an after-meal digestif. It's even versatile enough to nurse into the evening, he says, with Moore having toned down the caffeine profile to avoid keeping its drinkers up all night.
Baker says purists can drink Mr Black straight up, or over ice. Add some vodka and shake for an espresso martini, or add Absolut vanilla vodka and "shake the bejesus out of it" for an iced coffee with a twist. Or there's the Black Old Fashioned: bitters, brown sugar, burnt orange peel, and a shot each of rye whiskey and Mr Black.
"The robust coffee flavour of Mr Black was always designed to add some life and energy into mixed drinks and cocktails. And as we say, it takes the world's best coffee liqueur to make the world's best espresso martini," Baker says.
"We love coffee in Australia, but seem hesitant to mix it with booze, so Mr Black is set to change that by squeezing it into the repertoire of the cocktail crowd."