The Four Keys to Making Great Espresso-Based Cocktails

Follow some simple rules and move beyond the espresso martini

September 23, 2020 9:35 am
Diego Ruiz Pianello / EyeEm / Getty Images

My household made one extravagant quarantine purchase: a countertop espresso machine.

While some initial tinkering on the Breville got me close to what I wanted for java, this isn’t really a “set it and forget it” kind of machine. Nonetheless, after only semi-mastering my double shot of morning espresso, I was already thinking ahead to coffee-based cocktails.

One problem in New York is that great cocktail bars do not necessarily have good coffee (or any coffee), and great cafes may not serve booze. And then many other places that try to combine the two either serve an espresso martini or an Irish coffee and leave it at that.

So my goal, especially as the weather cools, was to find a way to make great espresso … and then use that knowledge to make some buzzy yet elevated cocktails at home. So I contacted a few baristas, bartenders and other bar pros who had knowledge of both coffee and alcohol to find the right caffeinated mix.

This writer’s early espresso martini attempts with his new Breville
Kirk Miller

It all starts with the beans

“Select beans that are freshly roasted,” says Martin Hudak, Global Coffee Ambassador for Mr Black Cold Brew Coffee Liqueur.  “Avoid big supermarket chains, as they carry coffees without deeper descriptions of origin, processing or date of roasting.”

As well, you’ll want to buy whole beans in lieu of grounds, which go stale faster. Keep them in airtight containers and, as Hudak says, “Always buy less versus more so you can use them fresh.”

As for which beans? It’s a matter of preference. Avoid blends and focus on single-origin coffees; this will allow you to find different flavor profiles for each region. Hudak suggests naturally processed coffees from South America — “Brazil, Cosa Rica, Panama, etc. for a fruitier and sweeter character.” If you prefer bright acidity and floral notes, go for washed-process African coffees.

As for specific beans for booze; if you’re making something with citrus, try a lighter-roasted African coffee that’ll share its fruity flavor profile, says Taylor Durham, a barista at Go Get ‘Em Tiger Coffee. And if you’re looking for something rich to hold up to whiskey or sweetness, pick a darker Central or South American bean. 

Outside of the machine, you can also use your new favorite beans to infuse your tipples. “We have great coffee beans from Oaxaca, Mexico; they have these amazing dark chocolate notes with a bit of citrus at the end,” explains Michael Azhimatov, a bartender at The Chester at Gansevoort MPD and owner of Maestro Coffee in New York. “We add smoky mezcal into that and we can later end up with a coffee-infused mezcal negroni.” 

Don’t let all the dials and buttons on your machine intimidate you 

Don’t go too crazy on the settings, at least at first.

I would suggest to pull your test shot first and see how your new coffee behaves,” says Hudak. “Don’t change your settings right away and if you do, only change one at a time. For example, if your espresso is running too fast, that means your grinding is set up to be too coarse, so you have to adjust it a bit finer or tamp/press your coffee into your coffee handle harder.”

Abdulrahman Abdulrahman / EyeEm / Getty Images

“Grind size will affect the way the coffee is extracted, as will temperature,” says Amanda Whitt, a coffee and spirits consultant. “Usually with home machines, temperature only becomes an issue if you are trying to make multiple drinks at once. If you are manually dosing [fancy industry speak for adding coffee grounds to the porta-filter], I recommend that people weigh their coffee; it’s much easier than trying to add by volume, and different beans will vary in density.”

Get a scale to weigh your coffee grounds and the final liquid. “Ideally for your double shot, you should have 14-18g of coffee powder with a final liquid of 50-70ml in no longer than 30s of extraction to avoid a nasty bitterness and burnt flavor,” says Hudak.

You can also use your machine to help you with your drinks, not just your coffee. “Have Scotch, amaretto, coffee liqueurs or honey on hand to add to your espresso — and then froth with the espresso machine steam wand,” suggests Ted Rink, the beverage director at BLVD Steakhouse in Chicago.

Avoid these common mistakes

“Coffee is a very simple ingredient; all you need is your fresh roasted coffee beans, water and very clean equipment,” says Azhimatov. “Clean equipment is a must for your shot of espresso that goes into your drink.”

To keep things from getting dirty, rinse your machine and clean it with dry microfibers or a paper towel.

And don’t skimp on the water quality. As Hudak suggests, you should ideally use water with a 7 pH — you can measure that level with pH papers you pick up at pet stores (where they use ‘em for the aquariums). Filter the water and don’t use straight tap. 

You can still make iced cocktails with an espresso machine

It just takes a bit of extra time. “To avoid diluting the espresso or overly heating the alcohol in a cold drink, pull your shots in advance and set the entire shot glass on ice, or throw it in the fridge or freezer to cool without adding any water,” says Durham. “If you add ice straight to the espresso, expect your drink to lose some of the strength.” 

So what drinks should I try?

Yes, an espresso martini is still the ideal use of your machine. We particularly like this recipe from Brendan Bartley at Bathtub Gin in New York. As he notes: “Beans with a higher protein will produce creme on the drink,” if that’s important to you.

  • 1 oz vanilla vodka
  • .75 oz coffee liqueur 
  • .5 oz white creme de cacao 
  • 1 shot of espresso 

Add all ingredients to a shaker. Add ice to shaker. Shake very very very hard. Strain into a stemmed glass.

Amanda Whitt suggests a Zombie riff called the Heckraiser:

Pull 1 shot espresso-set to the side to cool slightly, then add to a shaker tin with …

  • 1 oz Campari
  • 2 oz pineapple juice
  • .25 oz lime juice
  • .5 oz rich simple syrup
  • 1.5 ounces dark rum

Shake over ice. Serve in a highball glass or tiki mug with some crushed ice and as many garnishes as possible.

Ted Rink suggests an Espresso Negroni:

  • 1 oz. gin
  • 1 oz sweet vermouth
  • 1 oz Peychaud’s Aperitivo 
  • .25 oz float of chilled espresso on top

Add in glass and stir. Swap out the gin for bourbon and you have a Boulvardier.

Not in the boozy spirit? Michael Azhimatov suggests his Ooh La La: A shot of espresso and a homemade botanical seltzer water served over the ice.


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