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Jane Ryan | 01/09/2016

It’s one of the world’s most iconic cocktails guaranteed to have you dancing till 3am. But can we do better?

Guaranteed, in all the bars in all the world, there is always an Espresso Martini being shaken somewhere. This is a cocktail that has infiltrated the collective human lexicon more than any other drink. It was back in 1983 when the Espresso Martini, then called the Vodka Espresso, first burst on to the global cocktail scene, invented by the much celebrated Dick Bradsell who will be forever remembered for this delicious combination of coffee and alcohol. 

It was a drink which opened up the possibility of the night. One which allowed the coffee, the liqueur and the vodka to all shine through and one which slipped down with the ease of a sugar-coated pill. Even the legend of its birth is glamour and supermodels and waking up and getting messed up (we all know the real line, let’s not lower the tone this early in).

But that was 1983 and in the intervening 33 years nothing even rivalling the Espresso Martini has come out of the global cocktail scene, despite the fact the almost every other drink invented has been improved upon with better ice and citrus and spirits.


The iconic Espresso Martini

So what’s the problem? Outside of the creamy Irish Coffee, Lebowski’s equally-rich White Russian and the iconic Espresso Martini what do we have? Where are the flips and sours and bitterly refreshing coffee swizzles?

Coffee is complex. Really complex. An incredible 300 flavour constituents have been identified in green coffee alone, rising to a staggering 900 in a single and rather humble roasted coffee bean. It also pairs with a ludicrous array of flavours – from almond to avocado and banana to coriander seeds. With so much diversity, coffee should be a bartender’s delight. And yet it’s hard to balance the sweetness and acid and bitterness within a cocktail without losing one of those key elements.

“Coffee is less stable than tea and must be brewed to release its full spectrum of flavour, but its mixability should not be overlooked. Whether steeped in a French press, pulled as an espresso shot, or made into a syrup or liqueur, coffee is a challenging ingredient to incorporate into cocktails,” wrote Jim Meehan in The PDT Cocktail Book.

As the decades have slipped by it truly did seem that the only innovation to the coffee cocktail category we would see would be switching out the vodka for rum or tequila in an Espresso Martini. Hardly groundbreaking stuff. Until now it seems.

The fusion of coffee and cocktail culture was destined to coincide when both industries started to have a renaissance in the early 2000s, and in London it really started to happen with the expansion of Shoreditch Grind, who operated as a cafe by day and threw on their dancing heels come night. Then the intimate Bar Termini opened and began to hero the espresso alongside the Negroni. Drinking cocktails and coffee were no longer mutually exclusive.

This transition wasn’t without a few hiccups along the way of course. Marco Arrigo, head of quality for Illy, has seen his industry turned on its head by the new wave of coffee lovers who have been keen to focus on packaging and brand story over the production. “A lot of people think good coffee is subjective, but you can analyse it. And what it comes down to is a company buying the technology to remove impurities. So many new wave roasters don’t talk about how their coffee was handled or the caffeine content which shows you the quality of the coffee,” says Marco.


Espresso Negroni by Mr Black

When it comes to making cocktails, the quality of the coffee is imperative and one of the main problems you’ll encounter in cocktail bars is the poor coffee being mixed. For an industry so obsessed with fresh juices, cold glassware and the shape and density of the very ice used to shake a drink, you have to wonder how they’re so comfortable using unpalatable coffee.

“There is so much going on with coffee, up to 1500 chemical reactions when you roast. When your bartender or barista goes to make an espresso that requires three simultaneous chemical reactions to happen - there are just so many variables. You need to have the same great coffee to replicate cocktails as well. It’s easy to take a coffee and say today it’ll be like this, it’s much harder to make a blend that has been consistent for the past 90 years,” says Marco.

To get away from the problems of mixing with straight coffee, bartenders can turn to coffee liqueurs which add alcohol, coffee and sweetness in one hit. Know around the world you have the classics such as Tia Maria down the smaller brands such as Mr Black and Illyquore, all of which provide different flavour profiles and styles of coffee.

“Like water, alcohol relieves coffee of its flavourful compounds, and in many ways it does it better. Alcohol is better at extracting coffee oils, has the ability to form stable emulsions (known as nano-emulsions) with those oils, and is useful in the fight to preserve fragile soluble matter once appropriated…The only problem with using alcohol to make coffee is the taste of the alcohol itself. The hot fumes and peppery burn that we associate with ethyl-alcohol do not improve the flavour of a coffee. By adding sugar to an alcohol extraction we dramatically lessen the effects of alcohol burn,” writes Tristan Stephenson in The Curious Barista's Guide to Coffee.

So what cocktails can we look forward to enjoying beyond the Espresso Martini?

“As far as coffee in cocktails, I believe that we will be seeing a lot more than just the Espresso Martini,” says Alix Nardella, brand ambassador for Mr Black cold press coffee liqueur. “I mean, don’t get me wrong, I love ‘em, but there are over 200 different flavour compounds in coffee, and as bartenders and drinkers become more aware of this, I foresee coffee being used in ways we haven’t experienced before. Coffee Negronis are a great example of the beautiful bitter component of coffee being used in a different capacity. Coffee and tequila are naturally firm friends, but it also pairs well with sherry, rum, whiskey; you name it and coffee will get along!”


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