How the Espresso Martini Took Over America
Cocktail trends come and go. Is this one here to stay?
Cocktail trends come and go, but you’d be hard pressed to name one that has so quickly reached a level of ubiquity as the espresso martini.
A drink that bartenders allegedly dread making, the espresso martini was first served by legendary London cocktail connoisseur Dick Bradshell back in 1983, in response to a young model requesting a cocktail that would “wake her up, then fuck her up.” He shook her up a concoction of vodka, sugar, coffee liqueur and a fresh shot of espresso, which was originally christened the “Vodka Espresso.”
After a stimulating run in the ‘90s, the Espresso Martini faded into obscurity for most of the early 2000s, though it remained a popular choice in at least one major market. Then came 2021. According to Yelp’s data science team, the rate of mentions for the buzzy cocktail was up nearly 300 percent in the first six months of last year as compared to the same period three years earlier. People everywhere, it seems, were suddenly ordering espresso martinis again.
There are several theories as to why the espresso martini has had such an epic comeback, suggesting their cumulative effects have led to a perfect storm of sorts. The beverage has always been popular in countries like Australia, where craft coffee culture reigns supreme. In the States, coffee consumers are becoming similarly perspicacious, now taking their coffee bean choices as seriously as they do their IPAs. Forget about whether or not a beer’s hops came from the Pacific Northwest; now drinkers want to know if their local roaster ran their coffee cherries through a Wet or Natural Process.
“The Espresso Martini is popular where quality coffee is popular,” says Tom Baker, the founder of Mr Black Spirits. “So for the last decade it’s been pretty consistently popular in Sydney, Melbourne, London and so on. In the US it took a little longer. Prior to 2020, it was really just small pockets of Aussie and British expats in New York that were keeping the Espresso Martini alive in the US. In 2021, that all changed — and about time, too. The US has had an obsession with specialty coffee for the last five years, it was really only a matter of time.”
Besides a newfound obsession with specialty coffee, people are literally just tired. Really tired. After a year of watching reruns of The Office and solving jigsaw puzzles, they need a pick-me-up to make it to last call at the local watering hole. Lastly, we can’t leave out the role of social media, and the herd mentality it tends to inspire. Espresso martinis tend to photograph well, and cocktail content boomed on TikTok and Instagram throughout the pandemic.
“I’ve had an Espresso Martini on my cocktail menus since Spring of 2019. It was being ordered so commonly off-menu that we just wanted to lean into it,” says Patrick Smith, the Manager of Bar Openings at Union Square Hospitality Group. “Even more than the caffeine boost, I think Espresso Martinis are so popular these days because bartenders have learned how to make them taste great. Using fresh, high quality espresso, a good coffee liqueur and good vodka, it’s easy to see why they’re so much more delicious than they were a few decades ago.”
Amir Babayoff, Bar Director at Ophelia Lounge, experienced a similar peer pressure. While Ophelia has been making Espresso Martinis behind the bar since opening, they didn’t officially add it to the menu until four months ago.
“They’ve become so popular, we’ve had to,” says Babayoff. “The combination of alcohol and caffeine is somewhat an energy boost or a transitioning drink from what you’ve been doing before to what you’re going to do next. Combined with the growth of social media, people are eager to post this simple and gorgeous drink, and the exposure grows together with the popularity and demand.”
Is the Espresso Martini Here to Stay?
While some cocktail trends seem to enjoy seasonal popularity, like that of the Aperol Spritz in summertime, the Espresso Martini can be enjoyed any time of the year. It’s also a simple, classic recipe.
“The Espresso Martini is here to stay because it offers a taste, texture and an effect different from any other cocktail I can think of. There’s nothing quite like a well-made Espresso Martini, and to me, that means it isn’t a fad,” says Smith.
Others believe that the way forward for the popular cocktail is invention and iteration. “As with any cocktail enjoying popularity, bartenders everywhere are looking for ways to switch it up and make it their own,” says Hugo Florez, the Beverage Director at The Tyger. “We’re starting to see variations of Espresso Martinis on signature lists throughout the city. This cocktail isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, but the way we make it will probably continue to evolve.”
Don’t be surprised if you start noticing other coffee-infused cocktails on the menus at your favorite bars: the Coffee Negroni, the Espresso Old Fashioned and iterations of the Espresso Martini using mezcal rather than the traditional vodka are all gaining steam as we speak.
Make an Espresso Martini at Home
Since the Espresso Martini calls upon a short list of ingredients, the two most important considerations when shaking one up at home are ingredient quality and flavor balance. Smith, who uses only 1 oz of vodka in his recipe at Union Square Cafe, says that too much vodka can muddle the flavor. “It lets the coffee flavor shine and allows the texture to become thicker and richer.”
Babayoff believes the key to the perfect Espresso Martini is leaving out the extra sweeteners, and cautions against shaking your cocktail for too long for fear of dilution. Finally, Florez encourages home mixologists to use freshly pulled espresso for their martinis, which he says “is undoubtedly the best way to hit all your marks for a perfect and consistent Espresso Martini.”
- 1.5 oz Quality Vodka
- 1 oz Freshly Pulled Espresso or Cold Brew Concentrate
- 0.5 oz Mr Black Cold Brew Coffee Liquor
- 0.5 oz Vanilla Syrup or Simple Syrup (optional)
Add all ingredients into an ice-filled cocktail shaker. Cap your shaker and give it a hard shake for 15-20 seconds — any shorter and you won’t achieve the velvety head foam that the Espresso Martini is known for. Strain into a coupe glass and garnish with three espresso beans for a classic look.
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