The espresso martini … it just won’t die.
It’s not a martini. It’s rarely made with actual espresso. It’s loaded with booze and caffeine—the party-girl version of Four Loko. It’s rarely ordered in Palm Springs, until someone orders one, and then it’s the only thing made for the rest of the evening. A lot of that has to do with the demographics; we’re more prone to an invasion of ladies “out on the town” in large groups than most places, and copycat ordering is a big thing when people are going out for a social requirement and not necessarily because they want quality cocktails.
It’s also a drink that inspires disdain from most bartenders, especially if they have a full bar and must pull 15 fresh espressos to make 15 of them for the birthday party in the private dining room. (Yes, that’s something that’s happened to me, as I’m sure you realized.) It has a reputation as the drink of The Bachelorette, The Karen, the White Girl’s Instagram. This is clearly nothing a serious cocktail fan would order, right?
Where did this unfortunate modern classic originate? Luckily for you (and not luckily for those who enjoy my opinionated speculation), we have the answer readily at hand. The short version of the story, which I heard for years from other bartenders, is that the legendary Dick Bradsell (the creator of many of the drinks from the 1980s that didn’t completely suck) came up with it at London’s Soho Brasserie for a “top model” who demanded wake me up and fuck me up. Nobody really knows for sure who the model was; the models who people usually posit in the story were children at the time. Hey, there has to be a little mystery, or this wouldn’t be cocktail history, would it? It’s a great ’80s origin story, only missing a cameo from David Bowie.
Bradsell took a little sugar, some Kahlua, a bit of Tia Maria, a slug of vodka and some hot espresso, and whipped up a little something called the “Vodka Espresso.” Catchy. The drink went through a few more names throughout the years, even ending up on the rocks now and then, before finding its forever name and form.
By the time I started bartending in the early 2000s, this drink had degraded to the point of being ridiculed—at least here in the United States. By then, the espresso martini had become a nightclub drink … but nightclubs do not have espresso machines. As usual, food science came to the “rescue” with artificial flavors and mixes …. ugh. When I first “learned” to make this cocktail, it was with 200 people waiting on drinks at 11 p.m., a stack of questionable spiral-bound bar books, and a vintage Motorola in my pocket instead of a smartphone. OK, ladies, it looks like you’re getting a little Kahlua, some Bailey’s, and … oh, we just got this espresso-flavored Three Olives vodka. That sounds right! Three cocktails were shaken in one tin before being “crack the egg” strained (i.e., no strainer was used) into three knobby “2000’s-tini” glasses. It was actually a mudslide and not an espresso martini, but I was cute back then, and nobody knew any better, so I got away with it. I would’ve been surprised if anyone ordering the drink back then had ever had a real one, unless they frequented posh watering holes internationally.
Speaking of international bartending: I recently met with some folks from Mr. Black, an Australian cold brew coffee liqueur (no money was exchanged, and this is not sponsored), and was surprised to find out the espresso martini is still the No. 1 cocktail in Australia. (Most of my understanding of Australia comes from Crocodile Dundee, Yahoo Serious and Men at Work, so perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised; it just seems weird, like if I found out that the most popular drink in Montana was the cosmopolitan.)
Now that I have thoroughly attacked this cocktail, or at least what it’s become, I must say that some bartenders hang their hats on how good their espresso martini is. In other words, it’s not universally hated by members of the craft. It’s true: You can actually make this drink delicious and a treat for the senses … and I’m going to tell you how!
First of all, you’ll need to start with hot espresso, and don’t let it cool. As any decent barista will tell you, espresso dies a quick death, and once that crema is gone, your drink is already starting with one strike against it. Some will pull espresso ahead of time, or even use cold brew concentrate, and still manage to have the drink come out tasting pretty darn good. However, I’m assuming most people reading this don’t have the years of drink engineering and/or well-toned shaking muscles to pull this off, so use hot, freshly pulled espresso. If you must use the concentrate or chilled espresso, get a better coffee liqueur than Kahlua (Mr. Black, or NOLA from St. George), and dry-shake the cocktail before you shake it with ice.
OK, I know, you’re here for the recipes. Here’s one that those Aussies recommend. It’s pretty darn easy, and good.
- 1 ounce of vodka
- 1 ounce of cold brew coffee liqueur
- 1 ounce of freshly pulled espresso
Shake with ice; strain up into coupe; garnish with an espresso bean
This is the one that most bartenders use, more or less.
- 2 ounces of vodka
- 1 ounce of freshly pulled espresso or concentrate
- 1/2-3/4 ounce of simple syrup
- 1/2-3/4 ounce of coffee liqueur
Shake; strain into a coupe; garnish with a coffee bean
Feel free to add a pinch of salt; it really makes the drink pop!
Lastly, don’t be afraid to experiment with other base spirits. I recently made a version with Slivovitz for an event (don’t ask!), and it was pretty darn good—and probably the only way to mask Slivovitz. Dave Arnold, bar-nerd extraordinaire, recommends rum in his classic book Liquid Intelligence. Here’s an adapted version; it’s not strictly an espresso martini, but it’s in the family. Call it the Boozy Shakerato:
- 2 ounces of “dark rum” (I use Diplomatico)
- A full, freshly pulled espresso
- 1 1/2 ounces of heavy cream
- 3/4 ounce of simple syrup
- Pinch of salt
Combine all ingredients in a shaker; fill with ice; shake and strain into short glass.
Any of these three espresso martinis is guaranteed to be better than the one you get at those chain restaurants with the pieces of flair, at your local booty-shaking club—or even at your favorite craft bar, maybe! Whether you make it at home, or go support a favorite bartender, raise a glass to this deadly mix that was born in Britain, raised in Australia, and reborn in the States. As long as you don’t tell everyone else at the bar to order one, we’ll get along just fine.
Kevin Carlow can be reached at CrypticCocktails@gmail.com.