The Espresso Martini Is Just Waking Up

The Espresso Martini Is Just Waking Up

, via Epicurious

Photo by Elizabeth Coetzee, food styling by Judy Haubert


Turning heads and striking poses nightly at the hottest spots. Pulling off viral collabs with the likes of Parmesan. Pushing 40 and looking as fit as ever. If such a thing exists, today’s espresso martini is a bona fide celebrity cocktail.

To be clear, I don’t mean that the espresso martini is a mere accessory possessed by Highly Photographed People, like a purse dog or a flashy vehicle. I’m saying the drink itself is a star in its own right. Sped on by jolts of adoration and ridicule alike, the espresso martini has been a rocket streaking across our collective imagination over the past few years. In 2022, the drink—which had been largely left out of the modern cocktail revival in America—shot up to become one of the nation’s top 10 most-ordered cocktails, according to one study. There were more Google searchesfor “espresso martini” in the US in December of ’22 than any other time in history. People want to know: What’s this drink up to?

As any celeb will tell you, a flood of attention isn’t guaranteed to make you feel appreciated on a deeper level. With all eyes on the espresso martini, it’s arguably harder to properly see this cocktail. While it was quick on its way to becoming the It drink of post-pandemic American nightlife, more than a few folks making drinks at home may have written off the cocktail, thinking it was trendy and overhyped; it attracted too much gimmickry (remember parm?) and therefore must be bad; or maybe it’s a drink you only get while you’re out.

Reconsider these positions, and you’ll be rewarded. Because the espresso martini deserves a place in your home bar’s rotation. Occasion-wise, it can tune up a brunch. It can enliven an afternoon get-together. You can have a lot of fun with this drink, adapting it in all sorts of directions.

“There [are] very few drinks in the greater modern cocktail canon that can be so versatile,” explains Eduardo Porto Carreiro, the VP of beverage at Rocket Farm Restaurants, a group that operates more than a dozen bars and restaurants across the southeast US. “You have folks that drink old-fashioneds. They have very specific needs and expectations of old-fashioneds. You have folks that enjoy negronis—you better not really mess with their negroni. But the thing I feel probably sets the espresso martini apart from those ‘classic classics’ is the notion that it’s more of a vibe.” He adds, “You have the specific specs that originated the drink, but because it has morphed and evolved over the last 40 years into more than just a drink, it’s an experience and a vibe, you can tinker with the ingredients.”

In fact, improvisation was written into the DNA of the espresso martini from the jump. The drink was invented at Soho Brasserie, a swanky London club, in the early 1980s (probably ’83). It was at the behest of a young fashion model, so the legend goes. Eager to keep her night alive, she famously asked a bartender, in so many words, for a cocktail that could stimulate, then inebriate, all in one.

That bartender was Dick Bradsell, an iconic figure who presided over the London cocktail scene for decades and helped disrupt the reign of the city’s pub culture. Soho Brasserie had recently gotten an espresso machine installed. So Bradsell served her vodka, coffee liqueur, sugar, and a freshly pulled shot from the new machine, shaken over ice and fitted into a sultry martini glass.

Photo by Elizabeth Coetzee, Food Styling by Judy Hauber

The recipe is so simple, but nonetheless works magic. The sweet ingredients tame both the brashness of the vodka and bitterness of the coffee. Vigorous agitation of the espresso and its oils creates an invitingly frothy, crema-like head atop the drink. The coffee liqueur renders the drink inky black and brooding in color—it’s a cocktail that catches your eye. For more flourish, Bradsell established a special garnish for his creation, borrowed from traditional sambuca service: three espresso beans nestled on the foam, meant to represent health, wealth, and happiness. Various coffee cocktails had come before, but perhaps none arrived with quite so much style, so much personality.

In Bradsell’s many retellings of this story, the claim was always that the espresso martini—which he called the Vodka Espresso early on—was wholly conceived on the spot. It’s also very possible the prolific cocktail creator, who’s also credited with inventing the Bramble, had been working on the recipe before this mythic night took place, according to some accounts of those early days. For a time Bradsell recast it as the Pharmaceutical Stimulant, although the name espresso martini is the one that stuck. Through the ’90s the drink gained notoriety in parts of Europe and the US as a party potion—a high-class precursor to blunter instruments like the Vodka Red Bull and other caffeinated cocktails.

Come the mid-aughts, the craft cocktail movement was building momentum. Early on, the espresso martini wasn’t much part of that conversation: Far older classic drinks were being rediscovered and celebrated, and many cocktails minted in the ’70s and ’80s lost their cultural currency. The espresso martini, Carreiro says, “kind of went to sleep.”

The parallel evolution under way in coffee culture in the early 2000s would help to set the stage for the espresso martini’s comeback. Barista-made drinks and Third Wave coffee not only came to define the prevailing modes of coffee consumption, but also calibrated palates in a way that was more in line with the flavor profile and aesthetics of the espresso martini.

Bradsell passed away in 2016, which brought renewed attention to his contributions to the bartending craft. Bars around the world paid tribute to Bradsell with espresso martinis on their menus. Demand for the drink began to increase over the next few years, with brands like Kahlúa, Deloce, Loverboy, and Tip Top responding with canned versions. Full-on stardom ensued once bars and restaurants reopened during the ebb of the pandemic—roughly mid-2021—and scores of drinkers were thirsty for a beverage to enable them to make up for the social hours that were lost.

The espresso martini’s hibernation has probably been a contributor not only to its new wave of popularity but also to the wide range of experimentation happening around it. Many drinkers and bartenders, especially younger ones, didn’t have strong preconceptions of the drink, allowing it to be new all over again. (Some have also mused that all those drinkers who used to sling back vodka Red Bulls in their 20s have now aged into espresso martinis in their 30s and 40s.) The simplicity of the original opened the door to more complex and divergent variations. Plus, you can never underestimate the enduring draw of ’80s nostalgia.

Giuseppe Santochirico, the beverage director of Hidden Leaf and Midnight Theatre in New York, says that each main element of the espresso martini’s template can be nudged in fresh ways. For an interpretation called the Soho Stimulant that’s served at Southeast Asia–inspired Hidden Leaf—a onetime menu item that’s now secretly available to those in the know—the bar staff uses Vietnamese Robusta beans to make the fresh coffee. In addition to vodka, they add Mr Black coffee liqueur, Empirical Ayuuk, Batavia-Arrack van Oosten, sherry, and a misting of toasted sesame oil to accentuate the nutty character of the Vietnamese coffee.

Changing up the spirit component is one of the most common ways to riff on the espresso martini. Philadelphia’s Enswell, which operates as a café by day and a cocktail bar and restaurant by night, serves multiple variations on the espresso martini. In addition to a traditional vodka-based version and another with a sub of overproof rye whiskey—both callable but currently off-menu—Enswell serves a Haymaker cocktail made with Rival Bros “Whistle & Cuss” espresso roast, house-made orgeat, Liberty Belle coffee liqueur, and Moscatel bourbon, topped with an instant coffee cream and garnished with flaky Maldon salt. “You have this drink that ends up like a latte, and it satisfies that espresso martini craving, but it kind of reinvents how you get it,” says Enswell cofounder Jonathan Adams.

Where can you take your own experimentation? Subtle modifications to the traditional espresso martini build can refine the drink in neat ways without straying far from its essence. I like tossing a lemon peel into the shaker, for example, to add a dimension of brightness to this moody cocktail.

The rabbit holes in modern coffee culture can be sources of inspiration, too. I’ve been tinkering with a brown butter–infused dark rum as the basis for a bulletproof-coffee–inspired espresso martini. Prep for this drink is more time-intensive, but I assure you it’s worth it; the addition of the butter-enriched rum amps up the velvety mouthfeel of the standard version, making this one extra hard to put down. Plus, the rum can be put to use in other drinks too.

When Bradsell kicked off this journey, the taste for bitterness among cocktail drinkers was not what it is today, so it’s no surprise that his recipe was designed to temper the rough edges of espresso with sweet notes. But what if you invite in the bitters? The espresso martini is eminently receptive: a salted, amaro-laced version of the cocktail harmonizes with—rather than hides—the bitter notes of espresso while tapping into its citrus-like acidity.

“There’s so many iterations and possibilities with the actual recipe,” Carreiro says. “As long as you don't mess with that feeling of, Let’s provide a fun upper and downer, together, in a martini glass.”

Will the current craze over the espresso martini subside? A drink so good at inventing and reinventing itself—not to mention manifesting its own fame—is bound to have staying power. Especially if we assume that the best riff is still yet to be written.


This article is shared from Epicurious

Title: The Espresso Martini Is Just Waking Up

Author: Roger Kamholz

Source: Epicurious

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