Beyond the espresso martini: creative coffee-based cocktails

20 April, 2020 by
Madeline Woolway

Cocktails had their renaissance in the early aughts, but until recently, coffee-based libations remained chained to late-twentieth century drinking culture, especially in Australia where espresso martinis reign supreme.

There’s nothing wrong with the IBAapproved recipe. Reportedly created by cocktail innovator Dick Bradsell in the ’80s, it’s decidedly retro with vodka and Kahlúa forming the alcoholic base, which is then mixed with ristretto and sugar. But its mass appeal means it often needs to be made in bulk, and mistakes are frequently made.

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The most common espresso martini misdemeanor — a poorly pulled shot — would be considered a sin in most cafés. The coffee industry and baristas have upped their game exponentially since the turn of the century. Here’s what bartenders can do to lift theirs.

Aside from using Single O’s blends at his venue PS40, Sydney bartender Michael Chiem has worked with the roastery to create coffee-based cocktails. The experience has been eye-opening. “There’s heaps of innovation to do with coffee that’s slowly translating into the bar world,” says Chiem.

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Australians might have a tendency to lampoon the diner coffee we associate with the US, but North America’s café scene has modernised, too.

“The expansion of available coffee liqueurs is right alongside the growth of quality coffee globally,” says Alex Day, a partner at US-based cocktail institution Death & Co. “We’ve seen the third-wave coffee movement really expand palates further; it’s no surprise cocktail culture has fallen in with that.”

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Day recently toured Perth, Sydney and Melbourne with co-partner David Kaplan. They were in the country to host a series of collaborations with Australian Venue Co. bars Wolf Lane, The Winery and Trinket, ultimately offering a chance to compare the specialty drinks scene.

“While coffee cocktails are gaining popularity in the States, they’re certainly not the top tier of what we drink,” says Day. “Having been in Australia for a week, I’m very surprised to see the number of espresso martinis and variations thereof. They seem to be unbelievably popular.”

Neither Chiem or Day have a personal vendetta against the espresso martini; they just opt to do things differently.

One of the most popular drinks on the PS40 menu is the Africola, a trippy take on another retro classic, the Irish coffee. The hook is all in the temperature flip: an ice-cold liquid is topped with warm foam. PS40 use high-quality coffee liqueurs from distillers such as Mr. Black, and a new wave of products are helping to create cocktails with balance and complexity.

Death & Co works closely with coffee roasters in New York, Los Angeles and Denver, which is where their venues are situated. Each city has a distinct personality and the latter is known for its café scene. In fact, Death & Co Denver operates from morning to night, switching from café to bar as the sun goes down.

“At our New York location, coffee-based cocktails started out as an additive or an extra dimension of flavour,” says Day. “I recall some early explorations where we were taking coffee beans and infusing them into vermouth and making a Manhattan variation. Coffee was a dimension to be added.”

In Denver, the company was able to partner with a roaster, Middle State, for the first time. “We recently started working with another one called Queen City,” says Day. “By having that great beginning product, we are able to explore coffee in different formats than what we had done previously. It’s now more of an accent piece.”

On their Australian tour, Death & Co served an espresso martini-inspired digestif dubbed the Coretto made with cold brew, Amaro Nardini and vodka. “We use a cold brew extraction and an espresso liqueur which adds a different dynamic of coffee flavour,” says Day.

The ubiquity of espresso martinis will lead some to head straight for an espresso shot when creating new coffee-based cocktails. However, for Chiem and Day, the clear winners are filter brewing methods.

Depending on the desired effect, Chiem tends to opt for cold brew. “It works well because it’s malleable,” he says. “It’s not too aggressive but there’s a lot of coffee flavour. To use fresh espresso, you need to have a coffee machine in your venue, which we don’t. We can use two different Mr. Black products to bolster up the coffee element a bit because we’re using cold brew.”

In Day’s opinion, it’s cold brew that’s really changed the game for coffee-based cocktails. The Coretto is another good example. Together, the amaro and the vodka introduce sweetness and alcohol — two things that act as preservatives and fortify the cold brew. “The whole thing, when combined and pre-batched, is actually pretty strong,” explains Day. “The cold brew won’t die away as quickly because of the fortification.”

As with all cocktails, it comes down to balance. It could mean using coffee in the background rather than the foreground. “Everything should taste balanced,” says Chiem. “The worst espresso martinis are the ones that have a huge coffee hit and that’s all you taste.”

It’s advice he heeded when creating the Bottoms Up!, a seasonal cocktail collaboration with Single O that features the roastery’s Sugarplum cold brew, Maker’s Mark bourbon and clarified milk. “With the addition of cold brew and bourbon, the clarified milk acts as a crisp backdrop to the coffee and booze, lengthening their flavours and rounding them out,” he says.

Day encourages bartenders to treat coffee like they would any new spirit or liqueur — it’s imperative to understand what you’re working with. “Different coffees have different flavour profiles,” says Day. “Think about the fruity flavour of an Ethiopian versus the rich caramel, toasted nature of a Central American coffee. Those are vastly different flavours.”

It’s advice to mix by, whether you’re making an espresso martini or a new-age coffee-based cocktail like those on the roster at PS40 and Death & Co.

Image: PS40 x Single O’s Bottoms Up! 
Credit: Alana Dimou